Food stamp recipients in Wisconsin would be required to use photo ID cards for their purchases under a bill being proposed by two Republican lawmakers.
Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, says the proposal is an effort to crack down on waste, fraud and abuse and to make programs like FoodShare more efficient. But detractors say it would shame those living in poverty, with no discernible benefit.
The bill, currently being circulated for co-sponsorship, would require the state Department of Health Services to submit an implementation plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval to issue electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards with photo identification to participants in FoodShare, the state's successor to the food stamps program. Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, is the Senate's lead sponsor.
It would also require DHS to submit a waiver request to the USDA, to allow DHS to require FoodShare recipients to show their photo EBT card when making purchases.
If the bill is passed and federal approval is granted, DHS would submit the plan, the waiver and a request for any necessary funds to the Joint Finance Committee for approval.
"Realistically, I think it could be a bipartisan bill," Kremer said in an interview, noting that the Democratic-leaning state of Massachusetts has such a policy on the books. "They just have found that these are ways they can cut down (on fraud) and make them more efficient."
Serving on the Assembly Committee on Public Benefit Reform, Kremer said he's learned many steps have already been taken to reduce the level of fraud and waste in programs like FoodShare. But there's more to be done, he said.
Based on national averages from the USDA, Kremer estimates about 1.5 percent of the $1.1 billion in federal SNAP benefits dispensed to Wisconsinites last year was a result of recipient fraud.
In 2014, Kremer said, DHS recorded more than $6.5 million in fraudulent FoodShare overpayments. He noted that those figures don't specify how many were related to a person using a card that does not belong to them.
EBT cards, or QUEST cards, already require a PIN for use. But Kremer said adding a photo ID would prevent someone from using a card that was lost even if the PIN were to be identified. It would also crack down on sales of cards on social media or the black market, he said.
"For people that are trying to peddle these cards on the black market and social media, it would be a lot harder to peddle them if it’s got a picture of someone on it," Kremer said.
The most recent fiscal estimate provided to Kremer projects a cost of $7 million to start the program, split between federal and state funds. That's a "worst case scenario," he said, based on an assumption that the federal government might require a card to be issued to every member of the household. It would cost an estimated $2 million per year — again split between federal and state funds — to continue the program, he said.
"If we find we're saving $4 or $5 million worth of fraud, it's worth it," Kremer said. "If not, it isn't."
Kremer said he's interested in learning more about how the University of Wisconsin-Madison issues its Wiscard, which serves as both a photo ID and debit card. The QUEST cards could potentially use that as a model, he said.
Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, flagged the bill as an "appalling" move by the Legislature's Republican majority. He said Wisconsinites are struggling financially in large part due to policies passed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislative majority.
"Shaming a mother in poverty who's trying to feed her kids isn't going to make her less poor. Basing policies on ridiculous allegations isn't going to solve any real problems," Ross said. "Jesse Kremer needs to provide the evidence to back up his call for this despicable policy, and if he can't, the first thing he should do after apologizing to the people of Wisconsin is resign."
Asked for evidence of the kind of fraud his proposal would address, Kremer pointed to testimony offered by the Office of the Inspector General and to several news reports — one from Milwaukee's FOX 6 and one from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — that showed instances of food stamps being sold online.
Several other states have considered or implemented photo ID provisions in recent years, and a similar idea has also been proposed at the federal level.
But a 2013 move to put photo IDs on EBT cards in Massachusetts prompted complaints from the USDA that the state was using the requirement to improperly cut benefits and similar concerns were raised when Maine implemented the requirement in 2014.
Missouri has also considered a proposal like Kremer's, along with others that would prevent food stamps from being used to purchase steak or seafood or that would impose a lifetime limit on benefits.
Sean Nicholson, executive director of the liberal group Progress Missouri, said debates over such legislation rely on "bad stereotypes of what low-income families are like and how they survive day-to-day."
"There's certainly a national context here that's hard to puncture," he said.
There's also some question as to how effective photo ID requirements for food stamps can be.
The central problem is that an EBT card is issued to the head of a household, but all members of that household are allowed to make purchases with it, per federal law.
Federal law also says shoppers making a purchase with food stamps cannot be subjected to special scrutiny.
"So, if a retailer doesn’t ordinarily ask for a photo I.D. to verify credit card transactions, it’s not supposed to scrutinize the photos on E.B.T. cards either. This gives stores an additional reason to ignore the photos — and in supermarkets where the shopper swipes the card through a reader directly, the clerk may never even come in possession of the card to examine it in the first place," wrote Josh Barro for the New York Times.
According to a March report from the left-leaning Urban Institute, adding photos to EBT cards is unlikely to prevent food stamp "trafficking."
"Much of SNAP trafficking occurs when a cardholder receives cash for a card from a colluding retailer. If the retailer is in on the trafficking, a photo on the card won’t do much to deter this type of fraud," according to the report.
Kremer acknowledges that the ability for other household members to use a card presents a problem for his bill.
"The way we’ve drafted the bill is it would still be head of household getting the card with the photo ID on it, but everyone else in the household still would have to be able to use that card," Kremer said. "So it’s kind of, yeah, a double-edged sword. It works in some cases and won’t in others."
Ross questioned whether the bill was being driven by a genuine public policy concern, pointing to Kremer's legislative "term paper."
GOP lawmakers in the Assembly were asked by Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to submit papers in November 2014 to help him determine committee assignments.
In his paper, Kremer mentioned several public benefit reforms he hoped to make.
"It sickens me to see all of the fraud and abuses that go on in this state. From some of the tenants in our rental homes that make more than I do and can't afford rent to the people using Quest cards at Potawatomi or using these benefits to purchase steaks for their dogs because dog food is not covered. I would love for nothing more than to locate every crack and crevice where there are abuses in our state run programs. They are there as a crutch and a lifeline, not a lifestyle," Kremer wrote.
Kremer also wrote in his "term paper" about an idea he'd raised during his campaign: limiting the use of QUEST cards to privately-run food pantries overseen by the government.
"Yes, it may be humbling to go into the pantry to purchase 'needed items,' but as I mentioned earlier, most people understand that this is meant to be a crutch and not a lifestyle. I would also love to see photo lD's (sic) on all Quest cards and will continue to work this angle," Kremer wrote.
The pantries could be set up on grocers' property, Kremer said, but they would not sell items like junk food, liquor or cigarettes.
"The fact that the author of the bill would, in his perfect world, require poor people go to segregated grocery stores to get food for their families, makes it clear that it's seething contempt, not legitimate public policy concern driving Kremer and supporters of this bill," Ross said.
Kremer dismissed that suggestion. He also said the food pantry suggestion was a discussion point he wanted to raise, but not something he sees actually happening.
"We all fall on hard times. And these programs are there for people that need it. I have no problem with that," Kremer said. "I’ve fallen on hard times, I know families that use these programs that, they really need it. And it’s meant to be a crutch. It’s meant to really get someone back on their own again. It’s not meant to be, however, a lifestyle change. It’s meant to help you out in a time of need. That’s why they’re there, and I agree with that. I want to keep the programs in place wholeheartedly, I just want to make sure that they’re being efficiently run."