This year's jump complicates a longtime point of pride for SNAP defenders: that the program helps feed 40 million people with negligible loss to trafficking, fraud or worker error. USDA classifies a case as an error if a family receives food stamps when they don't qualify for them, or if they are issued more or less benefits per month than are allowed by federal regulations.
The new data have already fueled criticism from those eager to downsize SNAP.
“These error rates reveal significant concerns with how states are administering the program,” said Jonathan Ingram, the vice president of research at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank that has pushed for cuts to food stamps. “In the past, opponents of welfare reform have used these error rate reports as a shield against efforts to improve program integrity. But it turned out that those past reports were based on bad or even manipulated data.”
Mispayments in the food-stamp program are most commonly the result of caseworker error, and not fraud or deception by recipients, according to USDA. Overpayments are by far the most common type of error. But their number remains small compared to other large government programs, such as the earned income tax credit (nearly 24 percent) or Medicaid (10.10 percent).
Under current law, households are eligible for SNAP if their net monthly income falls below the poverty line and they meet certain limits on things such as personal savings and car ownership. The amount they receive each month varies depending on factors such as the number of people in the house, the amount of money they spend on utilities and rent, and expenses such as child care and medication.
Occasionally caseworkers make mistakes calculating benefits or verifying their information. Such mistakes are typically uncovered during audits and reported up to federal administrators.
For several years, beginning in the early aughts, these national rates of mispayment fell. Anti-hunger advocates regularly referenced them in reports and congressional hearings, arguing that the low error rates shored up “public confidence” in SNAP.
But in September 2015, a report conducted by USDA’s inspector general raised concerns that some states were underreporting their mispayments. Subsequent investigations by USDA and the Department of Justice over the next two years found that 42 states had not followed the proper protocol for reporting mispayments, and that a subset of those had deliberately covered up how often caseworkers made them.
In extreme cases, state officials shredded internal paperwork that showed benefit amounts were incorrect and encouraged food-stamp recipients to lie to auditors, USDA documents reviewed by The Washington Post show. Wisconsin, Virginia and Alaska agreed last year to repay $16.6 million to the federal government as part of DOJ settlement agreements in which the three states admitted to misleading federal auditors.
A number of the implicated states had worked with the same private consultant, who advertised that she could help agencies lower their error rates and win performance bonuses.
“It is the most serious violation of trust involving states that I have seen in my career,” Kevin Concannon, the former undersecretary of the Food and Nutrition Service, told The Post last year after the settlements were announced. “Any college freshman who has taken a statistics class would know what they were doing was wrong.”
In a statement, Brandon Lipps, USDA’s acting deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, indicated that past issues with states had been resolved -- and that the higher mispayment rate announced this year reflects its new procedures. Among other things, the agency has retrained state food-stamp staff and issued new rules on working with consultants.
“The performance rates released today reflect an improved reporting process designed to provide an accurate measure of errors,” Lipps said. The corrected rates will be used, he added, “to ensure taxpayer dollars are invested wisely and decisions are made based on solid facts.”
But concerns linger about how some states administer SNAP. While mispayments are rare nationally, some states -- such as Rhode Island, Maine and the District of Columbia -- have rates above 10 percent. High rates, particularly in the double digits, are unacceptable, said Stacy Dean, the vice president for food assistance policy at the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who points out that the food stamp program's policies for both identifying and correcting errors are among the government's most rigorous.
Separately, Congress has proposed several measures to prevent states from again misleading USDA as part of this year’s farm bill. The House’s version would, among other things, greatly expand the definition of a case “error,” including under- and overpayments of even a few dollars. It would also eliminate USDA performance bonuses.
The Senate's farm bill proposes a number of new verification tools designed to make it easier for caseworkers to verify an applicant's information.
“We have taken steps in the Senate Farm Bill to strengthen the SNAP quality control process,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) in an email. He added, “I appreciate the efforts by [USDA] to get things back on track after a multi-year lapse.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said the House and Senate farm bills would eliminate USDA performance bonuses. Only the House bill would.