Saunders: Background checks for food stamps? Why, exactly?

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 7, 2013 

You know how you wake up in the morning after a hard night of Scrabble, all jowly and bleary-eyed?

If you’re anything like me, your first thought upon squinting into the mirror is “That can’t be right.”

That’s the same thing a lot of us are saying after some North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill to require criminal background checks on people applying for food stamps.

Wait a minute. The same legislature that opposes any form of criminal background checks before you can buy a gun from a private seller – something about “right to privacy” and Second Amendment rights – now wants to force you to submit to the government equivalent of a rectal probe in order to put food on the table?

Nah. That can’t be right.

But it is. The N.C. House Health & Human Services Committee, obviously no students of irony, have no problem probing into the backgrounds of people who just want to live and feed their families. Yet, many of these same solons are the first to scream about the sanctity of privacy when the talk turns to trying to keep potentially violent sociopaths from purchasing a gun.

That can’t be right.

But it is. The things our government leaders should be trying to make easier, like voting and availing ourselves of aid when in need, they are erecting barriers to.

The things that they should be making more difficult – like, say, buying guns, the sole purpose of which is killing others – they’re making easier.

It is conceivable that someone with limited knowledge of the legal system or those who view it with suspicion may not know whether a warrant has been sworn on him or her and thus may be deterred from applying for aid. “Hmm, did I pay those parking tickets 10 years ago?” Or “Remember that time Sweet Thang called the law on me, but I split before they got there? How was that adjudicated?”

Deborah Craig-Ray, assistant county manager for Durham County’s Department of Social Services, said that office’s main concern is “a very vulnerable” segment of society. “If someone loses benefits, there are probably children involved,” she said.

Even if the lawmakers backing this proposal don’t give a rat’s toenail about whether some single mother can feed her kids, they should at least consider the financial burden the bill would place on counties.

Craig-Ray said her office could probably conduct each background check for about $25 because of certain computer software it already has in place. For other counties, the cost is estimated at about $38.

Still, with 60,000 people in Durham County who’d have to be investigated – and then re-certified every six months – that’s a lot of moolah.

David Atkinson, social services director in Carteret County and president of the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services, strove to be “magnanimous” when discussing the bill.

“I’m going to take the high road and say they just want to make sure that people who are not eligible don’t receive benefits. I think there are probably better ways to accomplish that than cherry-picking” two programs – Food Stamps and Work First – out of many.

“If this is something they want to do, I’d prefer that they step back, take a deep breath, and let’s study this. If li’l old Carteret County has to spend $410,000 a year” on background checks, Atkinson said, “well, I’m not sure the juice is worth the squeeze.”

It will be to lawmakers, as long as only the right people get squeezed.

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