By Lisa Baertlein (Reuters)
Stung by election-year criticism of a program used by one in seven Americans, administrators of U.S. food stamp benefits are intensifying efforts to combat fraud and protect the $75.3 billion plan from the budget axe.
Enrollment in the food aid program that helps the poor, elderly and disabled is running at record high levels, with 46.1 million people now participating.
High joblessness, persistent woes in the housing market and a tepid economic recovery have driven more that 14 million people to sign up for the benefits since U.S. President Barack Obama took office three years ago.
That number includes many displaced workers, who are now attempting to eke out a living with low-wage or part-time jobs. In many states, a family of four with net income of just over $23,000 would qualify for food stamps.
The spike in enrollment prompted Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich to dub Obama the “food stamp president” and has fueled calls for cuts to assistance programs that critics say are turning the United States into a welfare state.
In the face of such criticism, officials responsible for food stamps are trumpeting the program’s efficiency and vowing further improvements.
Kevin Concannon, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said his agency was doubling efforts to prevent fraud, which accounts for just 1 percent of food stamp benefits, but equals about $750 million each year.
“This is $750 million that isn’t being used to provide food to individuals and families and that issue isn’t lost on us,” Concannon said in a recent phone interview.