Food stamp errors increase

C onservatives in Congress long have had the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, in their sights for a budget cut. Recent statistics about errors in the program give them more ammunition.

The Washington Post reported this month that 6.3 percent of food stamp cases received incorrect payments. About 60 percent of the mistakes involved errors by caseworkers in calculating benefits — rather than outright fraud, which appears to be more common in other federal programs.

That 6.3 percent stacks up fairly well when compared to other programs. The Earned Income Tax Credit is wrong a shocking 24 percent of the time. Ten percent of Medicaid’s payments are incorrect, as are 9.5 percent of payments in Medicare’s fee-for-service program. And nearly 9 percent of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments to the elderly or disabled are wrong.

As for food stamps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s last report, in 2014, said only 3.6 percent of payments were incorrect. This is where the story gets interesting, because this figure had been low for a decade, and food stamp advocates often cited it as an example of a program that was working.

But a 2015 report from the USDA inspector general raised the concern that some states were under-reporting their payment errors. It turned out that 42 states did not follow the proper procedure for reporting errors, and some states were outright falsifying some of their information.

The Post reported, “In extreme cases, state officials shredded internal paperwork that showed benefit amounts were incorrect and encouraged food-stamp recipients to lie to auditors. ... Wisconsin, Virginia and Alaska agreed last year to repay $16.6 million to the federal government as part of settlement agreements in which the three states admitted to misleading federal auditors.”

The Post said several states with large inaccuracies had worked with a private consultant who said she could lower their food stamp error rates and earn performance bonuses for managers.

Congress has reacted by proposing ways to make it easier to verify a food stamp applicant’s income information. It’s a matter of time before sharper budget knives come out.

Given Mississippi’s high poverty rate, it would be foolish to support less food stamp money. Lots of people in this state, including many who work, depend on this assistance. And there are plenty of businesses like grocery stores and convenience stores who do, too.

A better path might be greater restrictions on what food stamps pay for, with a focus on healthier foods and beverages.

Meanwhile, one bright spot is that Mississippi ranked third in the country in 2017 errors. The state had a payment error rate of 3.29 percent — 2.80 percent overpayments and 0.49 underpayments. Only South Dakota and Idaho had smaller rates. Louisiana’s error rate was 6.56 percent, slightly higher than the national average.