Food Stamp Fraud and the Perils of Coerced Charity

Americans receiving food stamps were caught selling and bartering their benefits online for art, housing and cash, according to a new federal report that investigates fraud in the nation’s largest nutrition support program.

Complicating the situation is the fact states around the country are having trouble tracking and prosecuting the crimes because their enforcement budgets have been slashed despite the rapidly-rising number of food stamp recipients, according to the Government Accountability Office report.

Under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, 47 million people have been awarded $76 billion in benefits. State agencies are responsible for addressing SNAP recipient fraud under the guidance and monitoring of the Food and Nutrition Service.

“Such rapid program growth can increase the potential for fraud unless appropriate agency controls are in place to help minimize these risks,” the investigators said in their report. [Source,,]

It’s not just food stamp fraud; it’s everything where government becomes an instrument of charity.

The issue is accountability. Government is not a private charity. Government provides benefits to people because, it says, people are entitled to them, by moral right (it claims) and under the law.

This is different from a private charity. A private charity tells people, “We know you’re in need of help, and we wish to help you.” Private charity is not infallible. It’s subject to scandal, internal dysfunction and mistakenly helping people the charity itself would not wish to be helping, as we know. But it’s improbable it would ever happen on the scale of the food stamp program, and probably all else that the government does in the area of charity, health and welfare (not to mention student loans, corporate grants, and billions of dollars of other programs). Even if private charity did make a mistake on this scale, at least it would be done willingly and voluntarily. Government programs cannot go out of business, and their constant incentive is to gain more funds; not really and necessarily to help anyone.

Everybody responds to such data by saying, “Government ought to control fraud and corruption.” But how? Government is not in the business of charity. Government exists to force people to do things. We need a government in order to force criminals and frauds not to impose their actions on others. But when it comes to food stamps, government is mainly concerned with forcing people to pay for these programs, and then administering them to people the law says is entitled.

If you run a private charity and you become aware of people abusing your programs or funds, then you’d simply stop having money or aid sent to those people. The government cannot do this. The government has to go through a process, often one requiring weeks or months (even years) to get anything done. It has to be careful not to simply withdraw food stamps, or anything else, from a beneficiary. Everything has to be done within the law.

Most people insist that government charity is better than private charity. But the rampant fraud that’s in all government programs — always has, and always will be — proves just the opposite. If charity is really your goal, then you ought to start up or otherwise support a private charity. If charity is truly your goal, you can’t justify these sorts of findings of fraud by saying, “Well, they just ought to control that fraud.”

It’s never going to happen, because nobody in government is accountable, ultimately, for what happens. Compulsion is not charity. Compulsion is an obligation. Human beings, with good reason, resent being forced to do things. If you feel sorry for someone, because they’re in a bad situation they didn’t bring on themselves, and you’d like to help them, then any help you provide is purely voluntary. The person might or might not even want the help, or accept it. But there’s no government involved saying, “You’re entitled to this,” and there’s nothing forcing you to provide help against your will. Compulsion and entitlement are the antithesis of generosity, psychologically speaking.

The whole point of government welfare, for those who advocated it originally, was: “People should not have to ask for help. It’s humiliating, embarrassing, and many won’t do it.” A welfare and ultimately an entitlement state was developed to get private, voluntary actions out of the charity business and let government do it instead. Of course, what’s interesting is that private charity continues to flourish despite the existence of government. Americans donated $335 billion in private dollars to charities in 2013. “You can’t rely on private charity,” people claim. But even with trillions of dollars going into often fraudulent government transfers of money, private charity is still heavily relied on. You’d think that if government charity were so effective, private charity would have gone by the wayside, but not so.

The worst thing about government “charity” is not the fraud and abuse, although that’s probably far worse and more widespread than these statistics show. The worst part is what it says to people. It tells the givers, “You do not own your own lives and you’re not entitled to make judgments about whether or when to help people. We will do that for you.” It tells the recipients, “You’re entitled to benefits by right. You don’t have to earn them, and you have a right to force others to give to you. Your need is a claim on the efforts and property of others.”

It’s the principle of the thing.

The principle of the thing matters. Because once you establish the principle that an individual’s life does not belong to him- or herself, but belongs (at least to some extent) to the government, then all bets are off in defending individual rights in other areas. I know of many people who strongly support individual rights in the area of gay marriage, reproductive rights, and marijuana legalization; but what principle are they to rely on, in these areas, if they obliterate it in other areas? A principle has to apply across the board; otherwise, it becomes meaningless and impossible to sustain.

Government should withdraw itself from the charity business altogether. There’s no better way to end the waste, fraud and abuse inherent to government programs, and it’s the only way to do it.

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