U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin speaks to constituents, as captured in a video posted by the Think Progress blog.

Although an Oklahoma congressman said recently that food-stamp fraud is widespread, national and state government figures show only a small fraction of cases involve fraud.

U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin

U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin made his comments after visiting a grocery store in a Washington, D.C., suburb, where he said he saw signs of fraudulent use of food stamps. He added that food stamp fraud occurs all over the country and that “we should not be supporting those who won’t work.”

National statistics show that about 1 percent of food stamp benefits involves cases of substantiated fraud, according to the U.S. Department Agriculture. In Oklahoma, the food stamp fraud cases make up around 0.3 percent of all food stamp cases.

Mullin, a freshman, represents the Second Congressional District in eastern Oklahoma, which has the highest numbers and percentages of people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, among all five districts. The participation rate also is higher than the one in the Virginia county where Mullin said he witnessed food-stamp fraud.

Mullin’s comments came to light after a left-leaning political blog, Think Progress, posted a video online showing him at a town hall meeting in Welch on Aug. 8. He said he had visited a grocery store in Crystal City, Va., to purchase some items when he noticed a large number of people using food stamp cards.

“I noticed everybody was giving that card. They had these huge, huge baskets and I realized it was the first of the month,” Mullin said.

Mullin said he noticed one couple in line who was physically fit but who paid for their groceries with a food stamp card.

“Fraud. Absolute, 100 percent, all it is is fraud. There’s fraud all through that,” Mullin said. “When I got up there to pay cash, the lady like to have died … She didn’t realize you could still pay for groceries in cash.”

Mullin went on to say about food-stamp fraud: “It’s not just in one area. It’s all over the place.”

A spokeswoman for Mullin’s Oklahoma office said his schedule would not allow time for an interview and declined to elaborate on Mullin’s comments. A call to Mullin’s spokeswoman at his Washington, D.C., office was not returned.

High Use

Nearly a quarter of the population in Congressional District 2, or 161,275 people, receive food stamps, according to the Oklahoma Department of Human Service’s program numbers from May, the latest available.

The congressional district with the next highest percentage and numbers of food stamp usage is Congressional District 5, which includes Oklahoma, Pottawatomie and Seminole counties.  A total of 145,904 individuals there are on the SNAP program, or 19 percent of the population.

In Arlington County, Va., where Mullin visited the grocery store, only 4 percent of the population, or six times fewer people than in Mullin’s district, receive food stamp benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s SNAP program provides assistance to low-income individuals.

To qualify, a person or family must generally have a gross monthly income no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $2,422 per month for a family of four, monthly net income of 100 percent or less of the federal poverty level and less than $2,000 in assets.

There are no physical fitness requirements for SNAP participants.

Forty-seven percent of all food stamp recipients are children, and 71 percent of all benefits go to households with children, the USDA reports. In addition, about 8 percent of food stamp recipients are at least 60 years old, and three quarters of them live alone.

The most common single source of income for SNAP households is earned income. Thirty percent of all households and 47 percent of all recipients live in a household with earned income, according to the USDA. Other households and recipients get other government aid, such as welfare, disability or social security.

The numbers of recipients nationwide and in Oklahoma has reached record levels in recent years. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of people benefiting from SNAP in Oklahoma rose by 29 percent, Oklahoma Department of Human Services figures show.

The  food-stamp program has been the subject of disputes in Congress in recent months, with cuts to the program expected to come in November.

Questions of Fraud

The USDA says there are at least three types of SNAP fraud: participants trading food stamp benefits for cash, which is known as “trafficking;” applicants lying on the application to get more benefits than one qualifies for; he or she is due, and retailers previously disqualified from the program for abuse lying to get back in.

Trafficking rates have fallen in the last few years, from about 4 percent in 1993 to 1 percent in 2008, the latest year for which USDA data available.

In 2012, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General conducted about 4,500 undercover operations and reviewed records of 15,000 stores nationwide, searching for SNAP fraud. Around 2,100 stores nationwide were sanctioned or permanently disqualified from participating in SNAP.

In Oklahoma that year, there were 5,330 new cases involving allegations of SNAP fraud sent to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services Inspector General. About a third of those reports were referred to fraud units after a preliminary investigation, said George Tipton, chief investigative administrator for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

Of the total cases closed in 2012 alleging SNAP fraud, 1,112 resulted in either a successful prosecution, disqualification of the recipient or reimbursement to the program.

The 1,112 cases made up around 0.3 percent of the 389,072 total existing SNAP cases in fiscal 2012.

Because the number of SNAP participants has grown in recent years, it’s likely the number of fraud cases also has increased, Tipton said. However, it’s not clear whether the share of total SNAP cases that involved fraud has increased.

The most common complaints of fraud include: unreported income; an unreported household member; receiving benefits for a child not living in the home; selling SNAP benefits to another person, and that the recipient received benefits from more than one state, according to the state’s Inspector General’s office.

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