Cost-cutting legislators want Illinois to join a national push to fight fraud by adding identification photos to Illinois food-stamp cards, an idea that opponents say amplifies a negative stigma about food stamps and targets the poor instead of addressing the real problem.
Legislation to study the cost of adding photos triggered harsh words during the House debate, including accusations that the goal was to discourage people from signing up.
"Why are you picking on poor people?" asked Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago. "Don't vote no. Vote hell no!"
Conservatives, who say photo IDs would prevent people from selling LINK cards for cash or allowing other people to use the cards, got just as heated at the idea of anyone opposing efforts to reduce waste and fraud.
"Why are taxpayers paying for this?" Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, yelled three times during the debate.
The bill introduced by Rose to study the issue was approved 64-48 and now goes to the Senate.
That could mean more fireworks ahead as Illinois, like many other states, considers ways to reduce welfare costs.
There have been pushes in Iowa and Texas to prohibit people from purchasing "junk food" such as hot dogs, with food stamps. Michigan decided to prevent some college students from obtaining food stamps, affecting between 10,000 and 18,000 people. And nationally, there have been proposals to reduce the program's budget and eliminate benefits if a family member goes on strike.
Demand for food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, increased dramatically during the recession. Between 2007 and 2010, Illinois participation in the program grew 32 percent -- the fifth-smallest increase in the nation.
The Illinois program now totals $2.8 billion a year, with all the money coming from the federal government.
Michelle Torres, a 41-year-old mother of nine, said food stamps mean "survival" for her family.
Torres works 40 hours a week and is taking night classes to become a certified nurse's assistant, keeping her in school until 9 p.m. The Chicago resident said putting a photo ID on her LINK card would prevent her babysitter from using Torres' card to buy food for the children. She rejected any suggestion that people on food stamps are simply taking advantage of the system.
"I feel frustrated because they want to punish everybody," Torres said. "Not everybody lives off the LINK card."
Critics of the Illinois legislation say the real problem is an outdated computer system that routinely causes mistakes, not people occasionally selling their LINK card for drug money or letting someone else use it.
Illinois has the nation's sixth-highest error rate for processing food stamps, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2009, 6.2 percent of payments were incorrect, amounting to more than 90,000 cases a month of people getting too much or too little in benefits.
Illinois also has the nation's highest number of cases per employee -- a particularly heavy load considering the state's 1980s-era computers require manual data entry rather than electronic transfer of information.
But Rose maintains fraud is a real problem. Law enforcement officials complain that drug addicts sell LINK cards for cash, he said, and grocery store owners tell him customers let other people use their cards.
Rose said he grew up on food stamps but wants the system clean.
"I don't think this is a liberal or conservative concept," Rose said. "This is about ensuring the legitimacy of the program."
Republicans said they're pushing for the study to determine the cost of adding photos because they doubted the Democratic-controlled Legislature would approve a bill actually requiring the photos. An initial estimate from the department puts the price tag between $2 million and $4 million for implementation and equipment such as cameras, plus recurring expenses.
Diane Doherty, executive director of Illinois Hunger Coalition, described the legislative push as partly political, partly racist and entirely based on stereotypes.
She rejects the idea that fraud, rather than the shaky economy, is driving up food stamp costs, but said the Tea Party movement is pushing legislators nationwide to target food stamps.
"It's making an assumption based on a negative stereotype on why people are in poverty," Doherty said. "And it's denial. We've had persistent unemployment and persistent job loss."
She said store clerks already knowingly let people misuse LINK cards, and adding pictures wouldn't change that. But the pictures would amplify the embarrassment and stigma associated with food stamps.
"You're guaranteeing less and less people would want these benefits," Doherty said. "And that's what I think they want."