U.S. Rep. Charles Albert “Dutch” Ruppersberger introduced a bill to Congress on Wednesday that would reimburse federal funds to people whose food assistance has been stolen.
This bill was drafted in reaction to reporting from The Baltimore Banner and WMAR on widespread benefits theft and constituent complaints, said Jaime Lennon, Ruppersberger’s spokesperson.
“This is about helping people who are down on their luck,” said Ruppersberger, a Democrat, in an email. “It’s about helping seniors and struggling families – who are now crime victims and have lost their benefits through no fault of their own.”
As of September, more than $700,000 in welfare benefits have been stolen statewide, partly through skimming devices on ATM machines in convenience stores and gas stations. Although the bill is specific to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, thieves are also stealing from people who receive benefits from other welfare programs, such as cash assistance and disability, which are not included.
The bill would reimburse victims enrolled in SNAP, which is federally funded but administered at the state level. Federal law currently prohibits states from reimbursing victims of theft with federal funds. Unlike other states, Maryland is not reimbursing victims with state funds. This bill, if passed, would allow states to use federal money to offset the theft.
Along with welfare theft, Marylanders are also struggling to stay enrolled in SNAP. SNAP outreach workers reported administrative obstacles within the Maryland Department of Human Services prevented residents from recertifying their benefits, a federal requirement participants must go through every 12 months to prove their eligibility.
In a September hearing, members of the Maryland Senate Finance Committee pressed Department of Human Services Secretary Lourdes Padilla on her agency’s administrative challenges and why the state had chosen not to reimburse victims of food benefits theft.
Padilla responded that the department is instead relying on law enforcement to catch and prosecute the criminals.
”I truly believe that this belongs with law enforcement, and they will prosecute these fraudsters,” Padilla said. “I don’t want to compensate the fraudsters for them stealing the money.”
Senators expressed frustration after hearing Padilla’s response.
Ruppersberger’s bill, called the SNAP Theft Protection Act of 2022, was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture Wednesday.