Senators John Thume (R-SD) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) are making their concerns known loud and clear about potential abuse by government volunteers in the food stamp program. In a letter to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) from the two Senators, they expressed their concern that CNCS might actually be encouraging paid volunteers to take advantage of the food stamps benefits.

The letter from Thume and Sessions begins by pointing to the massive increase of participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Program, or commonly called SNAP, which is nothing more than the old food stamps program. They write that SNAP "has experienced dramatic increases in enrollment over the last 10 years. In 2002, there were approximately 19.1 million SNAP participants a month. Today, that number is 46.6 million participants."

While the Senators recognize that there are a number of factors that have contributed to the increased number of SNAP participants. However, they key in on the issue of volunteers who are already paid seemingly following instructions by CNCS to sign up for the food stamps benefits in order that their volunteer taxpayer-funded stipends are not counted as income and yet they will still be eligible for the benefits.

One instance the Senators cite in the letter is from the Montana government website which has a frequently asked questions page. The question and answer for VISTA program participants the letter points to is the following:

Should I apply for food stamps?

Oftentimes, some VISTAs feel guilty about applying for food stamps (coming from a supportive background, giving a year of life to service so isn't taking food stamps counterintuitive, etc). While the question is one that only you can answer for yourself, remember that the stipend is just slightly above the state's poverty level as determined by the federal government. Many members receive full-benefits (approximately $140/month) and speak of the value of learning how the public benefits' system works, along with learning what it's like to use food stamps at the grocery store. Another thing to note is that if you have over $2,000 in assets at the time of application, you are ineligible for benefits.

If you do plan on applying for food stamps, do so ASAP. If you're receiving benefits before your official start date, then your VISTA stipend will not count as income. If you apply after you start as a VISTA, the stipend will count as income. While individual cases vary, this can mean the difference between receiving $10/month vs. $140/month in benefits. You can (and it is highly encouraged) that you apply and become eligible in your local community, and then transfer your benefits.

The letter then states “Instructions like these raise concerns regarding the true cost of the CNCS program, the growing cost of the SNAP program due to the dramatic increase in SNAP program participation, and most importantly, CNCS’s potential role in what appears to be a deliberate effort to game SNAP program eligibility rules and use the program improperly to provide ‘learning’ opportunities for VISTA [Volunteers In Service To America] volunteers rather than feeding hungry Americans.”

In announcing the letter, Sen. Thume said that the SNAP program was to make sure that hungry Americans were fed. It was never intended to supplement the income of government volunteers.

“It appears that a significant number of CNCS volunteers are taking advantage of a special provision that was included by Congress to ensure that potential volunteers would not rule-out program participation due to fear of losing food stamp benefits, not to encourage volunteers to game the SNAP program,” he said.

Sen. Sessions added, “Now we’ve learned that a separate government agency — whose mission is to encourage volunteerism and community service — is using a loophole to further expand welfare enrollment without regard to need or qualification."

“The agency’s apparent encouragement to misuse these programs explains how we can spend so much money on welfare — equivalent to $60,000 for every household living beneath the poverty line — while failing to accomplish the goal of reducing poverty and expanding upward mobility,” he continued. “True compassion requires we reform this broken program.”

It seems quite clear what is going on here and that is these volunteers are being paid a stipend, but that isn't good enough. They want to be able to take advantage of the system as well. So they are taking the taxpayers for a ride coming and going and the apparently those in charge are willing to encourage them to do so, except for a couple of Senators who see the immorality taking place and are willing to call these people on it. Kudos to Sens. Thume and Sessions.

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