Several weeks ago, I noticed a half-dozen new ads in the Cleveland Park Metro station encouraging people to report SNAP fraud. The ads, which were in several other Metro stations and on buses, were a campaign by D.C.’s Department of Human Services, which operates the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.
The poster, with “STOP SNAP FRAUD!” written in large lettering, explained the punishment for misuse of food stamps and listed multiple ways to report it.
Food-stamp fraud is a meritless conservative talking point often trotted out to sow suspicion of social safety nets, with the ultimate goal of defunding them.
I wanted some answers as to who approved this campaign, so I asked a representative from the USDA’s SNAP program, who confirmed that the agency does encourage state governments to engage in awareness programs, and that it gave the District a grant to fund this campaign, though it wasn’t clear whether the agency had seen the resulting ads. Several days after I made my inquiry, a notice was posted on the Department of Human Services website stating that it had received this grant “for the explicit purpose of educating residents on ways to ensure the program can meet its goal of addressing food insecurity.” Clearly I wasn’t the only one upset with the approach: “We have received feedback that the campaign was not perceived in the way it was intended. The advertisement missed the mark, and DHS apologizes for sharing a message that is not a reflection of our values.”
Given that the ad was dedicated to reporting fraud, I can’t imagine what other way the Department of Human Services could have intended it. Indeed, it was asking the community to sniff around struggling, low-income people and how they go about feeding themselves and their families. It is truly disgusting — even if fraud was a significant problem — for the District to foster this kind of suspicion and condescension. The District made the unfortunate choice to pursue this tactic, and the “sorry you were offended” non-apology doesn’t address the deeper problem.
The food-stamp program is often treated as a problem to be solved rather than as a critical part of the solution to a much larger problem. Conservatives spend a lot of effort on “reorganization” methods that would cripple the program — such as the recent proposal to replace food-stamp cards with boxes of nonperishable food — or propaganda campaigns to undermine its real worth, with, for example, Metro ads that engage nonexpert citizens to spy on their neighbors. It is shameful the District would play directly into these efforts.
Meanwhile, the Department of Human Services is being sued for its widespread failure in administering SNAP. Bread for the City, a highly regarded nonprofit that provides services for low-income D.C. residents, represents some of the people affected by this, people whose food-stamp benefits were terminated without reason or notice, or whose applications were never processed. A Bread for the City lawyer told me the organization sees a continuous flow of these residents — our neighbors who are struggling to feed their families and are not being assisted properly or in a timely matter by the city.
I suggest that instead of spending resources on a baseless advertising campaign that turns citizen against citizen, the mayor instruct the Department of Human Services to get its own house in order and better serve the people of the District.