By H.B. ELKINS
The Jackson Walmart opened in 1985. At the time, my job required me to spend two or three days a week in the Breathitt County seat, so I was a frequent shopper at the new store. I typically went in to browse the newly-released records (yes, vinyl was still the way most people purchased music back then) and check out the fishing tackle.
After taking another job a couple of years later, I didn’t have many opportunities to shop there. That changed 11 years ago, when I returned to Jackson for work and began making regular trips to the store for household supplies, toiletries, pet food and other of life’s necessities.
It wasn’t long before I began noticing some peculiar purchasing habits. People would load up their shopping carts with cases and 12-packs of soft drinks. They were buying more pop than even the thirstiest family could consume in a month, so I thought maybe they were stocking up the concession stand for a youth sports league, community organization fundraising effort or public event.
Then, I observed a few other interesting things about this phenomenon. It always seemed to occur shortly after the first of the month, and the purchasers were buying all this pop with their SNAP cards, commonly known as food stamps. (I’m old enough to remember when they were officially called food coupons). Also, I started noticing that most of the purchasers had the tell-tale signs of being drug users, particularly of prescription painkillers.
Eventually, I learned what was going on. These people were using their government SNAP benefits to buy large amounts of pop, and then reselling it for cash which they use to buy drugs.
These fraudsters originally sold their ill-gotten soda to small “mom-and-pop” stores, because the proprietors of those businesses could buy it from the SNAPpers cheaper than they could the beverage distributors. Lately, though, they’ve bypassed the middleman and have started selling directly to consumers. I witnessed just such a transaction in the Jackson Walmart parking lot a couple of years ago. Two women were loading up the trunk of their car with 12-packs of pop when a man approached them. Money changed hands, and the man walked away with two 12-packs.
This practice causes feelings to run high in the areas where it’s rampant. A Lexington television station has dubbed this “the pop train” and did an investigative story last year. Reactions were varied. Some complained that people should do whatever they want with their SNAP benefits, and others have no right to complain. Many are outraged that their tax dollars are going to support illegal drug abuse.
What can be done? It will literally take an Act of Congress to make any changes to the SNAP program. It’s a federally funded program, administered by the states for the federal Department of Agriculture. States cannot exclude certain items from being purchased. Minnesota tried years ago but that effort was shot down by the feds.
Should the feds try to remove pop from the list of eligible items, we can expect a cry of outrage from the left. “Poor people don’t get to enjoy many things in life. How dare we further oppress them by not letting them buy soft drinks?”
Some claim that people are doing this not to fund their drug habits, but to raise funds for other household expenses. It’s plausible, but not very likely, as there are assistance programs for everything from landline and wireless telephone service to electricity. Besides, when the perpetrators have the unmistakable signs of drug abusers, that explanation becomes less likely.
The best solution is to institute some kind of quota system. Since the SNAP cards are part of an EBT system, it should be easy to track the amount of pop that’s bought with one card and to disallow purchases beyond a reasonable amount for personal household consumption. Once upon a time, at the first of each month, the Jackson Walmart used to post a store limit on the amount of pop that could be purchased, but they’ve abandoned that practice.
The resale of items bought with food stamps is considered to be fraud, and at least one law enforcement agency is doing something about it. The Hazard Police Department is using a grant to fund an investigation. They’ve secured several indictments and it will be interesting to watch those cases go through the court system. Meanwhile, according to a Courier-Journal story last week, the federal government has notified the state that rampant food stamp fraud in Kentucky threatens the state’s funding to administer the program.
I’ve always been infuriated at this fraudulent practice. My budget is already stretched thin, and given the amount of my paycheck that the government gets in taxes, I want those dollars to be spent as prudently and wisely as possible. Plus, I’ve always been an outspoken opponent of drug abuse. So I’m doubly outraged to see my tax dollars stolen and then used to buy drugs. I hope something can be done to stop this wasteful, abusive and criminal practice.
(H.B. Elkins is a former award-winning editor of the Clay City Times who now works in public relations. All opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the views of his current or any former employer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at kentuckyvalleyviews.blogspot.com.)