- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

The amount of inaccurate payments to food stamp recipients fell to a historic low of less than 7 percent in 2003, a federal watchdog agency said in a report.

The 6.6 percent error rate is a ?record low? and a significant improvement over the 9.8 error rate in 1999, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report released last week.

However, the 2003 error rate still means that about $1.4 billion was either overpaid or underpaid to individuals and families.

Reducing the error rate ?is something we’ve worked hard on with our state partners over the years,? said Kate Coler, deputy undersecretary of food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the $21 billion program.

The error rate, she said, does not refer to people enrolling incorrectly in the program. ?More than 98 percent of [food stamp] participants are eligible for the benefit,? she said.

The struggle is to provide all of the program’s 21 million recipients with the correct amount of food benefits.

In ?almost two-thirds? of error-related cases in 2003, state workers didn’t act on reported information or misapplied rules in calculating benefits, the GAO report said. The remaining errors were a result of recipients not reporting changes in income or household status.

Of the cases with errors, 76 percent involved overpayments, the report said. The average overpayment is $97 a month and the average underpayment is $78.

Simplifying the food stamp program’s rules is a big part of the solution, ?and the last farm bill in 2002 gave us some new tools to do that,? Ms. Coler said. For instance, recipients can get food stamps even if they own a car. In the past, owning a car could disqualify a recipient.

Still, the report shows how difficult it is to process information accurately, said Ellen Vollinger of the Food & Research Action Center. More caseworkers and more training would lower the error rate further, she said.

The 2003 error rate showed widespread improvement, the report said. Five years ago, 24 states had error rates of 10 percent or higher. In 2003, seven states had such high rates.

Regionally, the 2003 error rates were 9 percent in the District, 7 percent in Maryland, 5 percent in Virginia and 6 percent in West Virginia.

Last year, paper food coupons were retired in favor of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) debit cards. Recipients now use code-activated cards at food retailers. The cards allow purchases to be tracked and will not pay for nonfood or unauthorized items.

Switching to EBT has reduced trafficking and saved taxpayers the costs of printing, mailing, collecting and shredding paper coupons.

The government is interested in renaming the program, which was created in 1964 as part of President Johnson’s ?war on poverty.? At least 400 suggestions have been sent in, but a favorite name has not emerged, the USDA said.

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