Welfare fraud is actually rare, no matter what the myths and stereotypes say

Stigma has power."But if you ask about the things that welfare performs, you get support for it," says Noam Chomsky

Published April 4, 2021 6:30AM (EDT)

Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Oxford University Press)
Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Oxford University Press)

From “Poorly Understood: What Americans Get Wrong About Poverty.” Copyright 2021 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Do these headlines about welfare sound familiar?

"Woman charged with wrongly receiving more than $10,000 in food stamps, Medicaid benefits"

"Brothers sentenced in $1.4 million grocery store welfare fraud scheme"

"I'm going to make millions! Unrepentant Escalade-driving surfer who lives like a king on food stamps tells how the welfare system has let him strike it rich with his band"

Although such headlines are routine, they are certainly not indicative of the actual prevalence of welfare fraud. For example, the "slacker lifestyle" of Jason Greenslate, the focus of the third headline, received extensive media coverage. Popularly referred to as "lobster boy" and the "food stamp surfer", Greenslate came to prominence when he was profiled in a Fox News series titled, "The Great Food Stamp Binge." Embodying the stereotype of lazy, able-bodied welfare recipients who live comfortably on generous benefits and avoid work, Greenslate boasted about using benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to pay for sushi and lobster:

It's not that I don't want a job, I don't want a boss. I don't want someone telling me what to do. I'm gonna live my own life. . . . This is the way I want to live. And I don't really see anything changing. I got the card. It's $200. That's it.

Yet, nearly all SNAP recipients have little in common with the "food stamp surfer." Two-thirds of SNAP recipients are senior citizens, children, and people with disabilities. Among recipients who are able to work, most do. Additionally, SNAP benefits are low, and most recipients do not purchase high-cost items because this would greatly increase their likelihood running out of food before the end of the month, which is nevertheless a common occurrence. In 2018, the average SNAP recipient received $127 monthly in benefits, amounting to $4.17 a day and $1.39 per meal. Not only do these limited funds quickly run out despite careful budgeting, they also belie the stereotype that generous welfare benefits make it possible for recipients to "live large."

Although far from representative of the typical SNAP recipient, Jason Greenslate quickly became the face of the program, with Republican policymakers citing his circumstances as indicative of the need for reform. Emphasis on atypical cases such as this contributes to the overestimation of program abuse and perception of recipients as "takers" who do not contribute to broader society. For instance, during a 2017 speech, President Trump declared, "But welfare reform — I see it and I've talked to people. I know people, they work three jobs and they live next door to somebody who doesn't work at all, is making more money and doing better than the person that's working his or her ass off. And it's not going to happen. Not going to happen."

In one public opinion poll, nearly six in 10 (59 percent) respondents believed that it was very or somewhat common for people to lie and/or misrepresent their eligibility to receive SNAP. Nevertheless, analyses of welfare fraud find that it is relatively rare, making clear that there is a large gap between common beliefs about program abuse and reality.

How Common Is Welfare Fraud?

When people hear the term "welfare fraud," they usually think of individuals who misrepresent themselves or their economic situation so that they can obtain benefits that they are not eligible for or receive more benefits than they are entitled to. Perhaps the most notorious example of this was the so-called "welfare queen" that President Reagan often referred to. In a radio address on October 18, 1976, he described her story:

The trail extends through fourteen states. She has used a hundred and twenty-seven names so far, posed as a mother of fourteen children at one time, seven at another, signed up twice with the same case worker in four days, and once while on welfare posed as an open-heart surgeon, complete with office. She has fifty Social Security numbers and fifty addresses in Chicago alone, plus an untold number of telephones. She claims to be the widow—let's make that plural—of two naval officers who were killed in action. Now the Department of Agriculture is looking into the massive number of food stamps she's been collecting. She has three new cars, a full-length mink coat, and her take is estimated at one million dollars.

In his book, "The Queen," Josh Levin describes how this sensational and atypical case was used to frame the welfare population as undeserving and criminal.

The question, then, is, "How much fraud and abuse actually occur?" Program abuse can take many different forms. Analyses of SNAP take into account a range of inaccuracies and misconduct, including (1) trafficking or the illegal sale of SNAP benefits, which can involve retailers and/or recipients; (2) retailer application fraud, which involves a wrongful attempt to participate in SNAP when the store or owner is ineligible; (3) errors and fraud by SNAP applicants when securing benefits; and (4) errors and fraud by state agencies that result in inaccurate payments to benefits.

The more holistic approach embodied by these categories shifts the relatively narrow focus on applicants and recipients to other sources of inaccuracies and problems within the system, notably service providers and SNAP-authorized retailers. Moreover, while each category of information is useful, not all of it is indicative of fraud. Some behaviors, such as trafficking, are always treated as fraud, while others, such as duplicate enrollment, may reflect fraud or error depending on intent.13 Unintentional behaviors, such as a small reporting error on income or rent, are not considered fraudulent. Yet, when this this information is included in estimates of SNAP overpayments, it can result in exaggerated perceptions of fraud. While researching our book, "Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty," we reviewed these different indicators, highlighting the wide gap between myth and reality. What stands out across different measures is that fraud in the SNAP program is universally low.

The Criminalization of Welfare Receipt and Its Impact

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the myth of rampant welfare fraud persists. It is heard in ongoing complaints that welfare recipients take advantage of the system and in continued calls for "welfare reform" and greater "program integrity." It is also evident in policies that require welfare recipients to submit to periodic drug tests and finger-imaging to receive benefits. These stigmatizing practices treat low-income individuals and families more like criminals than people in need of assistance, and, not surprisingly, they are more effective at humiliating recipients and deterring prospective applicants than reducing fraud.

Low rates of substance abuse among welfare recipients raise questions about the true purpose of drug testing, leaving little doubt that this practice is more deeply grounded in stereotypes than evidence. SNAP recipients are only slightly more likely than nonrecipients to experience a drug abuse disorder, and as is the case with nonrecipients, alcohol abuse, which is not detected via drug testing, is more common than other forms of substance abuse. In fact, demographic characteristics such as youth are better predictors of substance abuse than SNAP receipt. Drug testing of participants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program yields similar findings. In a seven-state analysis, TANF recipients were found to test positively for drug use at lower rates than the general population. Collectively, these studies indicate that the millions of dollars spent on drug testing would be better utilized on job training and other services that move families out of poverty. Nevertheless, some states have sought to make unemployment benefits contingent on drug testing.

Evidence supporting the use of finger-imaging is equally scant. Touted as a strategy for reducing "double-dipping" (i.e., fraudulent submission of multiple welfare applications), finger-imaging became popular in the 1990s. Although its effectiveness in reducing fraud is increasingly questioned, finger-imaging succeeds at humiliating and deterring applicants. As one SNAP applicant explained, "It's basically like when you're going through central booking or something. You're getting booked, and you feel like you're getting fingerprinted, with one finger here and one finger there." Likewise, another recipient observed:

I feel that the fingerprinting of welfare clients is another mean- spirited action to "criminalize" poverty and further exclude the lower class from society. When I first heard of the fingerprinting proposal, I was immediately reminded of the identifying and segregating of innocent human beings over fifty years ago, not only in Europe, but, in this country and Canada as well. . . . I am also concerned with the misuse of this information in punitive ways. Whether we segregate and stigmatize by barriers of barbed wire, race or economic standing, we . . . diminish the moral fibre of all of society.

Drug testing and finger-imaging, along with other restrictive policies (e.g., requiring frequent verification of income), discourage prospective participants from applying for assistance. Stigma and stereotypes associated with welfare, more broadly, are problematic as well. In analyzing survey data from 901 community health center patients, Jennifer Stuber and Karl Kronebusch found that the stigma and stereotypes associated with welfare reduced enrollment in both TANF and Medicaid. Stereotypes associating public assistance programs with dependence and fraud reinforce the perception of welfare recipients as "undeserving takers," a personal identity that few people want to embrace. As a consequence, "stigma is likely to constitute a stronger deterrent to participation than the expected penalty for dishonest claiming, both in discouraging participation and in reducing its duration."


Unfortunately, myths about welfare fraud continue unabated, as does their impact on recipients and social policy. There are currently multiple initiatives underway to curb SNAP enrollment that appear to be fueled by unfounded concerns about fraud, abuse, and waste. President Trump's Executive Order, Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility sought to expand work requirements for SNAP recipients and establish work requirements for Medicaid recipients. The Trump Administration also proposed lowering SNAP asset limits and ending automatic enrollment in SNAP if an applicant qualifies for another public assistance program such as TANF, a change that would remove an estimated 3 million low-income households from the program.

The push to strictly enforce and lower asset limits appears to be informed by examples such as the highly unusual case of a retired 66-year-old Minnesotan, Rob Undersander, who applied for SNAP benefits to "test" the system. To be eligible for SNAP, households must have a gross household income below 130 percent of the federal poverty line ($34,024 annually for a family of four in 2019) and assets up to $2,250, or $3,500 if at least one household member is 60 years or older or is a person with a disability. These asset limits make it possible for low- earning individuals and families to accrue at least some savings and still access food assistance. To expand access and get benefits to eligible applicants more quickly, Minnesota is one of 34 states that has opted to rely on income to determine eligibility and not conduct asset checks. Undersander met the income criteria for SNAP benefits but had $1 million in property and savings— and his application was approved. Although an unfortunate case, there is no evidence that millionaires or others with significant assets routinely apply for food assistance and receive it; most SNAP households have less than $500 in liquid assets.

Both Rob Undersander and Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" are classic cases of using isolated examples to paint an entire group as fraudulent. With millions of families now at risk of losing much needed benefits to rout out illusory fraud, the urgency of debunking myths about welfare fraud grows stronger.

Finally, research has demonstrated that a number of poverty- stricken individuals and families who would be eligible for various safety net programs choose not to apply in order to avoid the humiliation, frustration, and stigma associated with welfare. Rather than encouraging fraud, the system would appear to be encouraging nonparticipation instead.

An Expert Appraisal—Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is the Laureate Professor of Linguistics, Agnese Nelms Haury Chair at the University of Arizona. He is generally considered the founder of modern linguistics and is one of the most widely cited scholars and influential public intellectual scholars in the world today. Here is what he has to say about misconceptions about support for government-funded safety-net programs:

If you take the people who say they want the government off their back, individualist in that sense, in the same polls, when you ask them if they want to see more spending on education, on health, on aid for mothers with dependent children, they say they support that. So, they also have social democratic inclinations even though they would not call it social democratic.

Take for example welfare. They are opposed to welfare. They are opposed to welfare because it has been demonized, especially by Ronald Reagan with his tales about welfare queens, Black women driving in limousines to steal your money at the welfare office, and all that business. People are opposed to that. But if you ask about the things that welfare performs, you get support for it. It is a complex mixture because of the nature of propaganda, of the dominant culture, and various conflicting elements of that culture. And, of course, it is not uniform by any means.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the United States in many ways remains what it was before World War II— largely a traditional, conservative backwater by international standards. Things have changed somewhat since the Second World War, but only for part of the population.

Another manifestation of this is that a large part of the Trump vote, those people who voted for Obama in 2008 and voted for Trump in 2016, are saying, "We don't want this system anymore. We want it changed. It is harmful to us." Which it is. Real male wages are about what they were in the 1960s. Much of the population, the working class, the lower middle class, this population has been essentially cast aside. Nobody represents them, the policies are harmful to them and have taken away their meaningful jobs, taken away work, dignity, hopes for the future, security, and so on. They are resentful and want to change it. That has been showing up in many ways across both Europe and the United States, and it is dramatic.

By Mark Robert Rank

Mark Robert Rank is co-author of "Poorly Understood: What Americans Get Wrong About Poverty," out now from Oxford University Press. He is currently the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, and is widely recognized as one of the foremost experts on issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice. He has been the recipient of many awards, and his research has been reported in a wide range of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and National Public Radio.

MORE FROM Mark Robert Rank

By Lawrence M. Eppard

Lawrence M. Eppard, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Shippensburg University, is co-author of "Poorly Understood: What Americans Get Wrong About Poverty," out now from Oxford University Press. His areas of research include poverty, economic inequality, and racial inequities.

MORE FROM Lawrence M. Eppard

By Heather E. Bullock

Heather E. Bullock is Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and co-author of "Poorly Understood: What Americans Get Wrong About Poverty," out now from Oxford University Press. She also serves as the director of the Blum Center on Poverty, Social Enterprise, and Participatory Governance. Her areas of interest include the social psychological dimensions of economic inequality, as well as identifying the attitudes and beliefs that predict support for anti-poverty policies. She has published her research across a wide range of academic journals, and is the author of two award winning books.

MORE FROM Heather E. Bullock

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Book Excerpt Inequality Noam Chomsky Poverty Public Assistance Snap Tanf Welfare