FOX 7 Investigates: Out-of-state food stamps

FOX 7 Investigates: Out-of-state food stamps

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Our nation's food stamp program is exploding with growth. In Texas, the number of food stamp recipients is equal to the entire population of Oklahoma.

"It's sad," Tracy Jackson said.

Tracy Jackson says she's the face behind the statistics.

"A person like me, a veteran, that is disabled, needs the help," Jackson said.

An army veteran, now paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, living on $52 a month in food stamps.

"The system to me stinks," Jackson said.

And these numbers are only adding to her frustration with the Food Stamp Program. They reveal something that's raising eyebrows all the way to Washington D.C.

"It's raises red flags if not yellow flags," Michael Tanner said.

Michael Tanner is with the CATO institute in Washington, an agency which advocates for individual freedom and government.

 

He's concerned about what we found in our public data search. It reveals Texans are boarding planes and cashing in their benefits all over the country.

"How are people qualifying for food stamps and still having the resources to travel extensively," Tanner said.

Extensively is right. These numbers reveal some Texans were in places like Hawaii and Alaska, cashing in their food stamps for groceries over the holidays.

 

"We completely understand why the public would wonder about that," Stephanie Goodman said.

Stephanie Goodman is the spokesperson for the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that monitors food stamps in Texas.

"Certainly when you have spending in Hawaii or Alaska that does cause concern for us too," Goodman said.

"How can they afford to do all of that and get food stamps? It's not right," Jackson said.

And consider this …the lowest airfare we could find to Hawaii with over a month's notice is almost $2,000.

And that's not all. California is a popular spot too. Two hundred sixty-four thousand dollars in food stamps were spent by Texans in that sunny destination last December.

Another faraway place... Alaska, some 4100 miles away, nearly $8,000 in Texans' benefits in just one month.

"You do have to raise questions about Hawaii and what it is that's attracting food stamp recipients there."

The Department of Health and Human Services says some possible explanations include disasters, visiting relatives for family celebrations and holidays -- even military assignments.

 

"If you have food stamps in Texas, how can you afford to buy a plane ticket to Hawaii or Alaska?" FOX 7's Christine Haas asked.

Goodman replied, "Sure, but we don't know our families are - a lot of what we find are our children were going on vacation and they allowed me to come with them, so it's hard to look behind any individual number."

 

And Goodman admits her agency isn't quite sure what's going on. She points out it isn't against the law for people to use food stamps out of state. But, according to Texas' website, recipients are supposed to notify their counselor before they do. But, she admits that's often not happening.

 

"No we follow up with them after, we run reports on who has had out of state spending for extended periods of time, we can send them a letter and ask them to call us or most families renew their benefits every 6 months and we follow up with them at renewal," Goodman said.

So, what happens when the state discovers someone is using their benefits in a place or at a time of year that suggests the recipient may be on vacation? Not much.

It was something I first learned when I investigated the issue back in 2011. Goodman told me back then that her agency "had a questionable track record when it came to following up on out of state spending.

She said because of my findings, the agency would be asking the office of inspector general for audit. Again that was in 201, so what happened?"

 

"Why didn't that audit happen?" Haas asked

Goodman replied, "It was never an audit, it's just a review of the actual cases and we do we pull numbers and we look at who's had spending that was out of state."

And these records show, since 201, out-of-state spending has increased by at least 10 percent. Goodman says it may be in part because some recipients have moved, and didn't notify the state. She also believes it's because of higher demand in a tough economy.

"The unfortunate thing is when have a program of this size, sending out $400 million a month, you are going to have a certain amount of fraud. Is it acceptable? Absolutely not," Goodman said.

I also asked for records that reveal where people are spending their benefits once they're out of state. But, Goodman says because of media investigations like this one the feds have to shut down access to that information.

"The federal government won't allow us to give that out and it's a federally funded program, we've had a large number of requests, but the federal agency oversees it, their interpretation of law is that we cannot release that redemption information," Goodman said.

What we can tell you is that fraud investigations won't likely be on the top of Texas' agenda because Tanner says federal money flows to states every month, no matter what.

"Basically states are not penalized...for small dollar fraud that goes on with that goes with overpayments that goes on in their states. They don't lose in federal funding so they don't have a great deal of incentive to do this," Tanner said.

"There's a lot of people who need the help and there's a lot who are getting the help ...who don't need it," Jackson said.

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