Economy

The Latest Food Stamp Fraudsters Don’t Look Like Welfare Queens

CREDIT: Davis County Jail via AP

Mug shot of Lyle Jeffs, polygamist religious leader and accused food stamp fraud mastermind.

Leaders of a radical Mormon offshoot group were arrested Tuesday for allegedly conspiring to defraud the food stamps program by charging off fictional purchases at stores the group owned.

The 11 men and women arrested are members of Warren Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, including his brothers Lyle and Seth. The two have run Jeffs’ outfit since he was convicted of sexually assaulting two young women he described as his wives. Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for the statutory rapes, which took place when the girls were 12 and 15 years old.

“This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud,” U.S. Attorney John Huber said Tuesday in announcing the charges.

The details of the case run counter to the image of food stamps fraud commonly tossed about in the media, in which undeserving individuals trick the government to let them sign up for benefits. Conservatives often use such eligibility fraud claims to justify support for cutting the budget of one of the nation’s most cost-effective anti-poverty programs.

The Jeffs set up two small convenience stores along the Utah-Colorado border and applied to get the stores licensed to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards. Church members then used their own SNAP cards to defraud taxpayers, either by purchasing food and donating it to the church or by running the cards “without the exchange of any food products,” the indictment says.

The alleged fake purchases and sham donations allowed the Jeffs to draw down actual money from SNAP, which prosecutors say they laundered through other companies owned by their church.

If convicted of conspiracy and benefits fraud charges, the accused could face up to 25 years in prison. The indictment does not give an estimated total dollar value to the scam, but says the state will seek to recoup the full amount of all transactions tied to the alleged fraud.

Fraud is vanishingly rare within the SNAP system, accounting for just 1.3 percent of all food stamps benefits in the most recent audit of the system in 2013. That’s down from a high of around 4 percent in the 1990s. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has refined its fraud monitoring practices since then. The program now is much less prone to fraud and erroneous payments than the crop insurance and farm subsidy programs traditionally linked to it in the Farm Bill.

Within that tiny sliver of the food stamps program, the sort of flagrant scam the Jeffs are accused of running is uncommon for its brazenness. Most trafficking of food stamps benefits is done at stores that actually do conduct normal business as well, the USDA’s 2013 report notes. The schemes are concentrated within tiny convenience stores.

But that’s not the image that anti-food stamps politicians and media figures invoke to attack the program and justify efforts to restrict its funding or eligibility rules. The American political right instead invented the “welfare queen” and turned a single, real-life criminal into a symbol for a fictional epidemic in the program. President Reagan wooed voters by telling them young black men were spending their hard-earned tax dollars on steaks. Modern conservative figures have put other spins on the idea — the proof of rampant fraud is in physically fit SNAP recipients, or that one surfer bro Fox News found, or the people in front of you in line with nice things in their cart — but the core deception is the same.

The conservative attacks aren’t just wrong because food stamps fraud is both deeply rare and predominantly white-collar in nature. They also portray the system as serving many, many people who do not deserve it. In fact, food stamps is vastly under-enrolled. Each year, millions of people who earn little enough to qualify for the program do not apply for benefits at all.