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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Crimes Against the Hungry

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Absolutely no one in the state should be surprised that Republican Gov. Scott Walker's mismanagement of Wisconsin's FoodShare program is bringing threats that the state could lose more than $20 million in federal funds.

If mismanagement of assistance to the poor and the vulnerable were a crime—and it certainly can be—Walker would have to be classified as a recidivist.

Two years ago, the state took over management of Milwaukee County's FoodShare program because the federal government was threatening to cut off federal funds due to then-County Executive Walker's mismanagement.

At the time, the state and county were facing a major class-action lawsuit because Walker's administration was unfairly denying food stamps to about 20% of applicants who were eligible to receive them.

To settle the lawsuit, the state Department of Health Services (DHS) took control of Walker's FoodShare program, hired new managers and filled budgeted county jobs Walker had left vacant—and which had resulted in exorbitant error rates and enormous workloads at an absurdly understaffed call center where only 5% of hundreds of thousands of calls a month ever got through.

Now, of course, Walker runs the state DHS. As secretary, Walker appointed Dennis Smith, a right-wing ideologue who formerly worked for the conservative Heritage Foundation and for Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in the Bush administration.

Putting Smith in charge of feeding poor people and providing health care for them is like putting the Ku Klux Klan in charge of enforcing civil rights.      When Smith worked for Thompson, he tried to kill Wisconsin's SeniorCare prescription drug program, which he's now charged with administering. Wanna bet he's through trying to destroy the program?

A year ago during the health care debate, Smith wrote an article advocating that states drop out of Medicaid, the federal program providing medical care for the poor, elderly and disabled.

It's no surprise Walker and Smith are in trouble with the federal government for an illegal scheme to privatize FoodShare.

Republicans hate programs that feed hungry people unless they can figure out some way their campaign contributors can rake in big profits while feeding fewer people.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the Walker administration that federal law forbids profit-making companies from administering FoodShare, which distributes more than $1 billion to more than 800,000 residents in Wisconsin.

FoodShare assistance, which is 100% federally funded, must be distributed by public employees hired through civil service. Otherwise, the state would lose $20.5 million in federal funds to help pay administrative costs.

GOP's Mean-Spirited Shift

The targeting of FoodShare by right-wing Republican governors in Wisconsin, Texas and Indiana demonstrates how mean-spirited and extreme Republican leadership has become in recent years.

The food stamp concept was initially shaped by the populist presidencies of Democrats Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

But, by the 1970s, it was a highly popular, bipartisan program, championed by such ideological opposites as South Dakota Democratic Sen. George McGovern and Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole, both representing farm states.

It was the ultimate win-win. Farmers had a major domestic market to help keep prices up and U.S. politicians could tell themselves no one had to go to bed hungry in America.

Decency seemed to rank a little higher as a driving force behind political concerns in those days.

Right-wing assaults on FoodShare were evident in a paper-thin "exposé" recently published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel alleging "Fraud Taints State's FoodShare Program" without ever bothering to support such a claim.

Without any evidence at all, the article smeared 2,000 poor people (out of 800,000) who reported losing Quest cards used to buy food more than six times during a year as "clear indicators of likely fraud."

Actually, that statistic doesn't indicate much of anything except that poor people often live chaotic lives, but still need to eat.

The article included other completely unsupported allegations claiming poor people were using the cards to buy steaks and seafood—no fish sticks for the poor!—and selling the food to friends at a discount to get cash.

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, wrote in response to the article that even if there were any evidence every one of the 2,000 people who reported losing their cards was a heinous food-fraud kingpin, it would represent an infinitesimal fraud rate of 0.25%.

Applicant fraud is monitored by the Department of Agriculture, Tussler said, and consistently is very low in Wisconsin. In 2009, the state received a $2.7 million bonus for its extremely low fraud rate.

A major newspaper distorts public priorities when it devotes space to unsupported attacks on poor people receiving food instead of questioning Walker's illegal attempt to privatize the program to create profits for his overfed supporters.

Good Lord! What if those wealthy executives use those profits to buy steaks and seafood!

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