- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

TRENTON, N.J. — Nearly 1 in 5 New Jersey households that received emergency food stamps after Tropical Storm Irene battered the state last year were ineligible for the benefits because of mistakes, confusion and fraud as some rushed to tap a new program in the state, a review revealed.

The emergency Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, now known as D-SNAP, has been around for nearly 40 years as one of the federal government’s ways to provide food in disasters.

While other states have used the relief previously, New Jersey activated D-SNAP for the first time as a result of the scope of Irene, which caused widespread wind damage, power outages affecting nearly 2 million homes and massive flooding when it blew through the state at just below hurricane level last August.

As word spread about the extra food stamp aid, government officials said, thousands of people who were ineligible rushed to participate, including residents in communities not hard-hit by the storm.

“It’s whisper down the lane,” said New Jersey Human Services spokeswoman Nicole Brossoie. “Folks came and lined up believing they were eligible for a program.”

The total cost of benefits to New Jersey residents was $38.3 million — a fraction of the $145 million allocated in the state in federal housing aid after Irene. The average award for households already receiving food stamps was $171. Those not already receiving the benefits got an average of $559.

The federal government pays for the benefits and half the administrative costs. County social service agencies, charged with administering the program in New Jersey, found themselves overwhelmed as they did their regular work while also trying to process large numbers of claims.

In Burlington County, officials complained about a surge of applicants from Willingboro, a community that did not have heavy storm damage. Ms. Brossoie said similar reports came in from other regions.

Burlington County thinks it could have rejected a large number of applications as either inaccurate or false if it had authorization and resources to better scrutinize them, social services Director Daniel Boas said.

In its report to the federal government, obtained by the Associated Press, the Human Services Department said it reviewed 281 randomly chosen households that received the special aid, finding that 51 — or about 18 percent — were ineligible.

Those found ineligible are being asked to repay the cost of the benefits they received. The state could claim federal tax refunds for those who do not pay what they owe.

There was no estimate of the cost of improperly awarded benefits. There was also no calculation of how many were due to errors by the county social services officials running the program and how many were due to application errors or fraud.

The state’s report cited a number of challenges in running the program in New Jersey for the first time. It noted that it took until February before every county could finish processing the last of the applications, which were supposed to have been handled in September.

Marybeth Schaedel, assistant director of the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, said New Jersey ran “a pretty good program” under difficult circumstances.

“For it to be your first disaster and you have it statewide, I never thought that’s how we would be implementing a D-SNAP program,” Ms. Schaedel said. “The whole state was declared a disaster.”

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