Looking for fraud in all the wrong places
By Parker Gilkesson
Public benefits fraud committed by people experiencing poverty is quite rare. For example, in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal government has found an overpayment rate of only 0.1 percent, or just a dime for every $100. I was invited to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Government Operations in a March 31 hearing on “Tackling Improper Payments for more Equitable Service Delivery.” During the hearing, other experts raised concerns that state agencies aren’t prioritizing improper payments. However, my experience as a caseworker has only underscored that we have this all wrong.
The reality is that despite the rarity of fraud, legislators and state agencies DO prioritize fraud prevention. But last month’s hearing made clear that states are looking for fraud in all the wrong places.
One of the other experts at the hearing, Linda Miller who focuses on fraud risk management, discussed how the main actors in fraud, particularly in unemployment benefits, are international rings, cyber security hackers, and identity theft operations from other countries. These entities are stealing the identities of people dead or alive to apply for benefits. But none of these actors are individuals experiencing poverty. However, all current fraud prevention measures that states use specifically target individuals.
There are millions of dollars in grants and targeted funding for fraud prevention and “program integrity.” SNAP and other benefit programs have rigorous application and eligibility processes, and caseworkers are often better trained to look for fraud than to provide trauma-informed care or to refer families to critical assistance addressing the many challenges of living in poverty. I know from my experience that caseworkers are very likely to be penalized or threatened with losing their jobs for accidentally approving recipients for more benefits than they are eligible for. Yet they aren’t penalized for denying or shortchanging benefits to eligible people.