11/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Voter Fraud and Food Stamps Fraud: Two Favorite Conservative Myths

While American conservatives are busy abandoning one principle after another, they are sticking to their guns on one tried and true unifying concern: shafting poor people.

Keeping to their mantra that poor people are always to blame for whatever ails the nation, conservatives won't let go of their obsessive fear that low-income Americans are somehow so adept at scamming society, they are secretly taking charge of the nation, despite having less money and power than everyone else. Ignoring rampant misconduct by the rich, conservatives whip the nation into anti-poor person frenzy with overblown charges of fraud, and use those charges as a pretext to further deny basic rights to low-income Americans, ranging from the right to vote to the right to obtain food stamp benefits.

Given all the massive Right-wing fear-mongering over supposed liberal schemes to rig the election by enabling large numbers of low-income (read: non-white) people to illegally vote, you'd never know that actual voter fraud is virtually non-existent in America.

According to a recent analysis by Lorraine Minnite, an expert on voting crime at Barnard College, (as quoted in Rolling Stone by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Greg Palast), federal courts found only 24 voters guilty of fraud from 2002 to 2005, out of hundreds of millions of votes cast. "The claim of widespread voter fraud," Minnite says, "is itself a fraud."

Conversely, the conservative establishment has gone to great lengths to make it difficult for low-income Americans to register and cast votes. That is why the miniscule number of people who illegally vote is dwarfed by the tens of millions eligible people prevented or discouraged from voting.

Likewise, conservative howls about supposed widespread food stamps fraud mask a much more pervasive problem, namely that social service laws and bureaucracies are so punitive and Byzantine that they prevent and discourage tens of millions of low-income Americans from getting the food stamp benefits (recently re-named Supplemental Nutrition Assistance -- SNAP -- benefits) to which they are legally entitled.

Despite the soaring lines at food pantries and soup kitchens nationwide -- and despite the reality that more than 35 million Americans (many of whom work or recently lost work) can't afford enough food, nearly one in three people eligible for USDA-funded food stamp benefits fail to receive them. In comparison, I have never heard of so much as one person eligible for Social Security retirement benefits who did not start receiving them after turning 65. While both Social Security and food stamp benefits are funded by taxpayers, the government acts on the assumption that every Social Security applicant is virtuous and deserving (and therefore makes it easy for folks to get benefits) while assuming that every food stamp applicant is a potential crook (and makes it min-numbingly hard to receive and keep benefits).

Federal law, as well as extra rules piled on by states, counties, and cities, often make the process of applying for foods stamps a Kafka-esque nightmare. New York State's handbook for administering the Food Stamp Program is 391 pages long. While the State has bragged that it recently reduced the application form from 16 to five pages, in New York City, even people who fill out the shorter form are still required to verbally provide caseworkers the answers to up to hundreds of questions. People are even asked if they owned funeral plots; In New York, if you owned one, that would not count against food stamps eligibility, but if you owned two, it could count against your eligibility. An information sheet printed by USDA used to encourage potential applications to apply for food stamps lists 27 different categories for the types of documents that an applicant might need to physically bring to a food stamps office to prove their eligibility. And that handout is an outreach tool that is supposed to encourage participation.

If all that wasn't bad enough, food stamp applicants are required to provide finger images (electronic fingerprints) in four of the nation's largest states (California, Texas, New York, and Arizona), further treating them like criminals. It is not coincidental that people never have to be finger-printed to obtain other types of USDA aid that goes to less poor (and often rich) people, such as farm subsidies, money to ranchers for conservation programs, and payments to rural business owners.

There are a lot of bad governmental policies out there, but few rise to the level of sheer stupidity as this one does. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration, which has resisted the State's attempt to roll back finger-imaging for working families, claims that the practice deters fraud and that it has no negative impact upon legitimate applicants. Neither claim is true. Even under the Bush administration, the USDA has found no proof that finger-printing significantly reduces fraud and has expressed worries that it may deter people from applying. The four states that do require finger-images have higher rates of payment error and lower rates of participation than those that don't. It's a lose-lose situation. For all those reasons, 46 of the nation's 50 states don't waste their tax dollars on such an inefficient and degrading system.

The Urban Institute found that, in one out of 23 cases, otherwise eligible people don't apply solely due to finger-imaging requirements. New York City detected only 31 cases of suspected fraud thanks to fingerprinting in 2006. Given that about 1.1 million people in the city received food stamps, that meant that only one in 34,991 Food Stamp Program applicants were caught in the act of potentially committing fraud by finger-imaging. Thus, to seize possible fraud by only one in nearly 35,000 people, the City denied benefits to one in 23 actual hungry people.

There are a number of effective methods to fight fraud already in use, other than finger-
Imaging -- such as computer matching. Fraud detection is important, but it is crucial to point out that, when large-scale fraud does occur in the Food Stamp Program (an occurrence far less common than 10 years ago), the perpetrators are usually food retailers (who fraudulently bill the government for non-existent customers) or government employees (who fabricate non-existent households). Duplicate cases created by individual food stamps recipients -- the only type of fraud potentially detected by finger-imaging -- comprises a relatively small percentage of government money lost due to fraud.

Still, Mayor Bloomberg -- trying to get political credit for opposing so-called fraud -- goes to absurd lengths to catch those 31 potential cases of fraud, spending $800,000 of scarce City tax dollars each year on finger-imaging. That's right, the City spends $800,000 of its own money on a system that may prevent 31 people from getting benefits for which they are not entitled, even though it prevents 21,500 people from getting $31 million in federal benefits for which they are entitled.

Yet just like with fake warnings of voter fraud, trumped-up claims of food stamps fraud let conservatives change the subject. Let's turn the subject back to voting rights and the need to ensure that all families have enough to eat.