Wisconsin, famous for its milk and cheese, has found itself facing problems in its food stamps program, known as FoodShare. According to the Associated Press, an audit report by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau flagged about 330 purchases made by 150 recipients of the FoodShare program, showing use of individual Electronic Benefits Cards simultaneously in Wisconsin and another state. It’s safe to say that something was stinking up the system, and it wasn’t cheddar.
To be clear – by itself, the use of the cards out of the state of Wisconsin isn’t a problem. The program receives federal funding, which allows the recipients to use the funds in other states. Plus, the article notes that many recipients live near state borders and likely shop across state lines. In fact, of the total $33 million spent outside Wisconsin’s borders, $22 million was spent in neighboring states like Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. Here’s the problem: the article says that $10.9 million was spent in other states and places like Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The Department of Health Services (DHS) tracked purchases and often found that the cards were used in Wisconsin and out-of-state – as far away as the Caribbean – in the same day. (Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands all just an inexpensive bus ride away from Wisconsin. So where did that money come from?)
How do these recipients use the same card when they are thousands of miles apart? The article reported that DHS was able to track the physical use of the card in Wisconsin and also see that the card number was manually entered elsewhere. Manual entries are only allowed when an electronic reader is malfunctioning. This pattern of purchasing suggests that individuals in the program are sharing or illegally selling their benefits.
Wisconsin lawmakers called the report a “wake-up call” highlighting the need to scrutinize program recipients regularly to avoid fraud. (You mean to tell me that someone in Wisconsin would double or triple dip benefits?!) Rep. Samantha Kerkman, co-chair of the Joint Audit Committee, also picked up on the value of the data, noting: “It’s a lot of data that we have and now it’s time to use it.”
Now that the state has identified the problem, how will they use the data? Will individual cases be further investigated and, if appropriate, referred for prosecution? Will Wisconsin taxpayers ever recoup the money lost to fraudsters? One thing is safe to say: if individuals are arrested and tried for fraud in the FoodShare program, they probably will not be “cheesing” for their jail photo.