Economy

Arizona Advances Bill To Spend Millions Each Year Putting Photos On Food Stamps Cards

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

State Rep. Justin Olson (R) had to gut his own bill to win Arizona GOP colleagues' support

When an Arizona lawmaker asked his colleagues to support a bill radically curtailing access to food stamps in their state this week, they agreed. But only on the condition that he ditch almost every piece of his proposal.

Rep. Justin Olson’s (R) bill would kick about 120,000 people off of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rolls. It would cancel the state’s policy of categorical eligibility, by which anyone enrolled in welfare or Social Security is automatically approved for food stamps without administrators spending time and money on another application. It would also bar the state from ever seeking waivers from federal work rules that are designed to respond to economic hardship that makes work requirements impractical.

Olson’s bill seemed doomed early Tuesday in the House, as a number of Republicans defected over its core provisions. But they came back into the fold, the Arizona Republic reports, after Olson promised his colleagues he would erase the provisions that would shrink SNAP rolls.

Assuming Olson makes good on that promise, the legislature will instead work to require that SNAP recipients’ photographs appear on their electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. The bill also channels a 2015 Kansas measure by banning public assistance cards from being used on cruise ships, in psychics’ offices, and at public swimming pools.

Adding photographs to benefits cards will cost Arizona taxpayers $6 million in year one and $4.2 million more in every subsequent year, the state’s fiscal analysts say. While conservatives who support that policy say the goal is to reduce fraud – which swallows just 1 percent of all food stamps money nationwide – any such reduction would not save Arizona a dime. Food stamps and other anti-poverty benefits are entirely federally funded, with states paying only for half the cost of administering the systems.

Even as Olson urges colleagues to spend millions each year chasing fraud that’s already vanishingly rare, the hard-hearted eligibility restrictions he initially wanted are looming for more than 30,000 in his state. The work requirement waivers that nearly every state has used because of high unemployment in recent years are beginning to expire as the economy recovers. Food stamps benefits will soon lapse for hundreds of thousands of people who are able-bodied but unable to find a job or score one of the few available spots in a qualified job training program.

The waivers have prompted controversy around the country in recent years. Civil rights groups sued Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) after he maintained the lower SNAP requirements in his state’s white, rural counties while reinstating work rules in cities. New Mexico’s attempt to curtail the waivers drew a similar suit, leading the state’s conservative leaders to drop the idea.

Elected politicians’ desired policies on food stamps generate a lot of hot air. But at ground level, service providers are working hard to find out what it actually takes to get food stamps clients into jobs that can move them toward financial independence. It can be hard, slow, personal work, and it requires significant funding resources and patience to achieve. But there are plenty of examples of successful bottom-up practices for promoting self-sufficiency, if politicians would stop reaching for simplistic approaches that lead to material deprivation but do not create jobs.