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Food-Stamp Overpayments Drop With Record Usage: BGOV Barometer

Graphic: Alex Tribou/Bloomberg

Food-stamp overpayments have dropped to record lows even as the number of Americans receiving aid is at an all-time high, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The BGOV Barometer shows the percentage of food-stamp payments that were above program guidelines fell to 2.99 percent in the year ended Sept. 30, 2011, the most recent available, according to the department. The overpayment rate was less than half what it was a decade earlier, while the number of recipients more than doubled to 44.7 million people on average in 2011.

“We’ve been able to do this at a time when enrollments are at a record and staffs have been reduced,” said Kevin Concannon, the USDA undersecretary who oversees food stamps, in an interview. Better training for workers who administer benefits, streamlined eligibility requirements and improved computer programs that help determine aid amounts have all helped lower the overpayment rate, he said.

Food stamps, whose roots date to the Great Depression, has been highlighted in the presidential campaign, with Republican Mitt Romney cited the program’s growth as evidence of what he said are the failing economic policies of President Barack Obama in the first presidential debate. The House budget approved in April, sponsored by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s vice presidential running mate, would cut food-stamp spending by $33 billion over 10 years.

Spending Doubles

A record 46.68 million Americans received food stamps in July, the most recent month for which data was available, the government said last week. Monthly spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program reached $6.26 billion, also a record and 2.9 percent more than a year earlier. Its cost more than doubled in four years to a record $75.7 billion in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2011, and is the department’s biggest annual expense.

The size of the overpayments varies from case to case, the USDA said. The overpayment rate, representing payments that were higher than they should have been, is separate from the amount of food-stamp spending lost to fraud and abuse, which is about 1 percent of expenditures, Concannon said. In 2011, Alaska had the lowest overpayment rate, at 0.53 percent, followed by Florida at 0.68 percent. The highest rate was in Wyoming, at 7.63 percent, followed by Vermont.

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