By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Maybe they’re not partial to prison food.
Investigators identified 447 state prison inmates receiving public food assistance benefits targeted for low-income individuals and families, according to the report by the audit bureau, a nonpartisan legislative service agency that assists the Legislature in oversight of state operations.
The audit of the federal program administered through state and local governments found an estimated 293 of the 447 inmates received $413,000 in FoodShare benefits, an average of $1,410.
Incarcerated people are barred from receiving federal food assistance. The idea is that those receiving three square meals a day compliments of the taxpayer don’t need a FoodShare debit card.
The report also found:
- 1,192 fugitives received benefits, those fleeing to avoid felony prosecution, absconding after conviction or violating probation or parole. Of those, 847 were “single-person assistance groups,” those who received individual benefits as opposed to benefits to families. The audit bureau found illegal benefits to these violators cost taxpayers $1.4 million, or an average of $1,690 per person, from the time they became eligible through March.
- In FY 2010-11, 107,288 assistance groups were issued permanent replacement FoodShare cards, including 22 groups that received 10 or more cards. Auditors found 21 of these 22 assistance groups had been issued a total of 86 replacement cards at the time their accounts had balances of less than $1. “This may be an indication that these recipients were selling their cards for cash,” the report found.
- Recipients found to have intentionally violated program rules are to repay benefits and are disqualified from receiving benefits for a period of time. But auditors discovered that recipients who appear to have intentionally violated the program rules are often not disqualified, “which allows individuals who repeatedly violate programs rules to reapply for FoodShare benefits and immediately begin receiving them.”
Foodshare Wisconsin, which implements the federal Food Stamp Act of 1964, has seen its ranks of beneficiaries soar in recent years, from 462,204 recipients in 2003 to 1.1 million in 2011.
The cost to taxpayers have more than tripled, from $360.2 million in fiscal year 2007 to $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2011, according to the audit bureau. Administrative expenditures rose 20.1 percent, from $85.5 million to $102.7 million, over the same period.
The increase in beneficiaries in large part is due to the recession, rising poverty numbers, particularly among children, and policy changes under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration that removed many barriers to participation, according to the audit bureau.
Department of Health Services “also implemented changes to make it easier to apply for benefits and complete recertification requirements, such as allowing online applications for benefits and allowing application and recertification requirements to be completed via telephone interviews,” the report notes.
The Legislative Audit Bureau made the following recommendations to the Department of Health Services. The bureau advises DHS to report to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee by Dec. 3 concerning:
- DHS’ plans to verify the Social Security numbers provided by FoodShare applicants.
- DHS’ determination of whether the advantages of charging a fee for FoodShare replacement cards to discourage unallowable use outweigh related administrative costs and effects on recipients/
- Its plans to review and address instances in which frequent requests for FoodShare replacement cards appear to be an indication of unallowable use.
- Its plans to provide additional training to caseworkers to help prevent the cases of incarcerated people from being reopened while they remain incarcerated.
- Its efforts to implement an effective process to identify recipients who are ineligible because of incarceration and to seek repayment of FoodShare benefits provided to them.
- Its plans to implement a process for regularly identifying FoodShare recipients who are ineligible for benefits because they are fleeing to avoid prosecution or confinement for a felony offense or are in violation of a condition of probation or parole and to seek repayment of FoodShare benefits provided to them.
- Its plans to improve the training provided to state and local staff on the procedures to be used in disqualifying FoodShare recipients who have intentionally violated program rules.
- How it will administer fraud prevention and investigation services for the FoodShare program in the future
She said one of the key solutions appears to be better communication.
Kenosha County saved $48,000, she said, by cross-checking between FoodShare administrators and the county jail, identifying inmates who had invalid claims to food assistance.
It’s a matter of fairness, to the taxpayers and to those who really need the benefit, the representative said. She said she received a letter from an elderly couple on a fixed income of $1,600 a month. Under FoodShare Wisconsin, the couple is entitled to $16 each month — the lowest level of food assistance, Kerkman said.
“They don’t have any disposable income. That’s enough to buy some bread, peanut butter, milk and a few other items. And here you have people getting $1,410 in prison,” she said.
Department of Health Services Secretary Dennis Smith in a statement said the audit bureau’s report will assist the agency’s efforts to “ensure the program is operating as it should be and that the correct benefits are provided to the right people.”
“We will also use this information to ensure that the people who receive the benefits are using them in an honest way and that we are continuing to work with the USDA to pursue vendors who may be defrauding the system,” Smith said.