A record 45.8 million Americans were on food stamps last May, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That's almost 15 percent of the U.S. population. New York has one of the highest proportions of food stamp users in the country, but turns out that thousands of those listed on the rolls didn't actually exist.
On Wednesday, Vanee Sykes pled guilty to scamming the government out of $8 million in food stamps. Over four years, the 44-year-old invented thousands of phantom individuals, all scraping the poverty line, collected their EBT cards, and sold them for cash.
Skyes held out longer than her co-conspirators. Tori Jackson and Louis Johnson, who are city welfare workers like Sykes, already had plead guilty, along with another accomplice, Alice Bradford.
As an employee for the Human Resources Administration, Sykes was responsible for determining which food stamp applicants were eligible for benefits, making the scheme an even more brazen violation of public trust.
The case is one example of the food stamp abuse that exists across the country. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, Wisconsin food stamp recipients "routinely sell their benefit cards on Facebook," and Washington state food stamp beneficiaries cashed out the cards on Craigslist and street corners, causing the chief of the state's food-stamp program to resign in April.
Food stamp fraud is a problem, but the attention given to these incidents can have the effect of exaggerating the extent of the abuse, and failing to put it in perspective. For example, white collar crime costs Americans between $300 billion and $600 billion a year, according to the National White Collar Crime Center. Those figures are significantly more than the $73 billion that the government spends each year to help almost one in seven Americans feed themselves.