I have come to the conclusion that you can tell a lot about people’s values by how they react to different kinds of fraud. Specifically, I have been struck in the past few months by the contrasting responses among many elected officials to two examples of the illegitimate expenditure of public money.

We have heard a great deal in this period about cheating on food stamps, and in response, my former colleagues have approved a bill that cuts $8 billion out of the food stamp program – far less, fortunately, than the $40 billion the tea party-dominated House Republicans wished to propose, but still far more than a compassionate society should be enacting.

There has been a great deal of congressional outrage over spending abuse in the food stamp program, and the very large cut in the program is one of the results.

There has been less mention in the media, and much less indignation, about the substantial fraud in the supply of materials necessary to keep Navy ships afloat. We have seen revelations of corruption and bribery affecting the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in this area, and there is no reason to believe that the abuses are confined only to those cases that have come to light.

Discouragingly, these are instances where U.S. officials have been bribed by corrupt private sector people, resulting in far more being spent to supply these ships than was necessary.

The difference in the responses between this example of fraud and that in the food stamp program is not simply that you have read much more about the former than the latter. More critically, my former colleagues have responded by substantially cutting back on the food stamp program and substantially increasing the funds available to the Navy.

Obviously I am equally opposed to fraud in both places; I also believe that across-the-board cutbacks when money has been misspent is a bad idea – I voted against the sequestration bill for that reason – because it penalizes the just and the unjust alike. But I am opposed most of all to the notion that when we discover fraud in the Pentagon, we should express our dismay, even prosecute some individuals, but reward the agency with an increased budget, while we react when some people cheat on the food stamp program by penalizing all of the participants, a large number of whom are poor children.

I acknowledge that reducing fraud in a targeted way is difficult. I am a great critic of the use of metaphors in public policy – they mislead more than they inform. One of the most misleading of these is the notion that we should be cutting “fat” out of programs, as if this could easily be done.

Of course there is fat in government programs, as there is in every human activity. But the image this conjures up is entirely misleading, and leads to harm in many cases. In fact, fat in public programs is not conveniently located along the edges where it can easily be lopped off, it is marbled throughout the meat. Cutting it out without losing a good deal of the surrounding substance requires much more skill than is represented by an across-the-board cut.

I have spent some time during my career in trying to reduce the misuse of public money. As a liberal supporter of public programs to fight poverty, I am especially angry at those who abuse them, because they endanger the great majority of recipients who are entirely deserving. In my first years in government, in the Massachusetts Legislature, I successfully sponsored legislation to use computers to monitor public assistance programs, to catch those who illegitimately benefit from more than one.

But there is an inevitable fact that must be acknowledged; we will never achieve the perfection that makes sure all benefits go only to those who are truly needy and that none go to those who scheme to get funds to which they are not entitled.

One of the most fundamental value questions for a society to answer is how to balance this. I do want to cut back on fraud, but I do not want to do that in a way that penalizes innocent, needy recipients of programs. We have a criminal justice system in which we say we accept the fact that some guilty people will go free so we can protect those who are innocent. A similar view should apply to these programs.

We are a wealthy enough society to accept the fact that a few unscrupulous people will succeed in cheating if the only way to stop that entirely is to adopt measures so rigid that large numbers of people in genuine need suffer along with them.

On the day when my conservative former colleagues take action against fraud in the Pentagon with an enthusiasm equal to what they are inflicting on hungry poor children, I will feel much better about our society’s values.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

– Special to the Telegram