The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 26, 2015

Adding photos to food stamp cards would not reduce benefit trafficking

March 26, 2015

Several states are considering policies requiring that all food stamp cards include the cardholder’s photo. Massachusetts has already put this policy into practice, and other states such as Georgia and Maine appear to be not far behind.

Those in favor of the policy believe photos on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards would reduce fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by making it harder to illegally sell EBT cards for cash. The policy’s detractors argue that photos (and the requirement that retailers check those photos) would subject SNAP beneficiaries to more stigma and make it harder to participate fully in the program.

Will photos reduce fraud? First, it’s important to ask if fraud is a major problem with the SNAP program. How much fraud is there?

Not much, contrary to the media’s often misleading portrayal of abuse in the program. Though the scale of the SNAP program has grown in recent years (that’s exactly what it’s designed to do during and after an economic recession), the amount of program trafficking through retailers has actually fallen dramatically since the 1990s: from a 3.8 percent rate of trafficking in 1993 to 1.3 percent in 2009-11. In other words, 98.7 percent of SNAP benefits reach the people who are supposed to get them without being diverted because of customer-retailer trafficking.

Three reasons photos are unlikely to reduce fraud

The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 does give states the authority to require photos on SNAP cards as a strategy to reduce fraud. But could adding photos help? Here are three reasons it’s unlikely.

  • Much of SNAP trafficking occurs when a cardholder receives cash for a card from a colluding retailer. If the retailer is in on the trafficking, a photo on the card won’t do much to deter this type of fraud.
  • Retailers are required under federal law to treat all customers equally, regardless of how they purchase their goods. Therefore, if a retailer is required to check the photo of a customer using an EBT card, he or she must also check the photo of every customer paying with a credit or debit card. Because of the increased burden on store clerks, it is unlikely that retailers will be required to ID all customers paying with cards, making the photo requirement meaningless.
  • If retailers were able to meet requirement of equal treatment, they would still need to uphold the rights of a household to redeem benefits through card use by multiple individuals, including designated representatives who do not live in the household. Either each eligible individual is issued a photo EBT card, or multiple photos are on the household card, or the names of all people authorized by the household to use the card are on the card, in which case these individuals would need to carry some form of photo identification with them. Without one of those unnecessarily complicated options, a retailer would have no way of knowing if the customer is a fraudulent card user or simply a designated representative.

Customers trying to redeem SNAP benefits may mistakenly believe that they will be required to show their photo ID at the checkout counter, and this might dissuade potential traffickers. It could also be argued that photos would prevent trafficking in cases involving a third party and not a retailer (for example, when a SNAP participant sells their remaining balance to another person for cash at a discounted price). However, if it is known that retailers do not and will not routinely check the photo—as suggested by members of the retailer community—will trafficking behavior, whether with a retailer or a third party, really be deterred? Probably not.

Would the minimal gains from the policy be worth the unintended costs to access and equal treatment? It’s hard to make the case. What’s more, the policy comes with increased administrative costs and possible implementation issues. Among the problems that arose in Massachusetts, an estimated 12,000 households were unable to access their benefits for a period of time due to a glitch in the policy’s roll out. If the experience in Massachusetts is any indication, these policies will do little more than result in confusion, increased stigma, and fewer families receiving this critical nutrition assistance.

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