Reporting Flaws Cast Doubt on Food-Stamp Program’s Integrity, Senator Says

  • Error rate may be ‘significantly higher’ than stated: USDA
  • Democrats say state-level issues shouldn’t justify cuts

Errors by states in reporting improper food-stamp payments have thrown the program’s integrity into question, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts said, prompting Democrats to warn against using misreporting as an excuse to cut assistance.

“No one knows the error rate of SNAP, and that is unacceptable,” Roberts said Thursday at a hearing of his committee, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. States are “gaming the system,” the Kansas Republican said. “Something needs to change. And something will change.”

The U.S. spent $66.5 billion on benefits under SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps, in the 2016 fiscal year, making it the government’s biggest food-aid program. About 41.3 million people received benefits in June, the lowest since June 2010, when the number of recipients was driven up by the recession. But it’s long been a target of Republicans looking to cut spending in the $4 trillion federal budget.

Roberts is raising the issue as his committee works on a farm bill, a twice-a-decade exercise reauthorizing food and agriculture programs that Congress may take up later this year. Food-stamp spending covers about three-quarters of the cost of the legislation, and Roberts’s move could signal a brewing battle over the farm bill, which relies on bipartisan support to be enacted by Congress.

Payment Errors

Nationally the program had a payment-error rate of 3.66 percent, which includes both over- and under-payment of benefits, in 2014 the last full year for which figures are available, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, because of problems in how states track mistakes, the actual error rate may be “significantly higher,” Brandon Lipps, the acting deputy undersecretary directing SNAP at the USDA, said at the hearing.

Some benefits are misallocated because of clerical errors that miscalculated eligibility. A 2015 report from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General found bigger issues, saying that, among other problems, third-party consultants used by some states encouraged hiding mistakes to keep error rates low. In some cases, that allowed states to gain bonus payments from the federal government. 

Problems were found in 42 states, the inspector general found, and since then, the federal government has pursued fraud claims against some of them, settling cases with Virginia and Wisconsin.

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the panel’s top Democrat, said that even with the uncertainty about the figure, nutrition programs "have an extremely low rate of error and fraud." She drew a distinction between fraud committed by food-stamp recipients with misreporting by states. She urged committee members not to let reporting problems drive discussion of the program.

"As we look ahead, we will continue to fine-tune programs and protect food access for millions of people," she said.

A new law reauthorizing nutrition programs and farm subsidies is due Sept. 30, 2018. Lipps said a new national error rate for SNAP would be available by mid-year in 2018, after reporting problems are fixed.

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