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Oh, SNAP! MN made $38M in incorrect food stamp payments

By   /   July 24, 2013  /   1 Comment

Part 8 of 20 in the series EBT Investigation

By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota

ST. PAUL — Congratulations, Minnesota, on only misdirecting $38 million in payments last year for the exploding food stamp program, which added 51,000 to its rolls in the Gopher State.

Here’s your $1.2 million bonus.

SNAP: Minnesota earned a $1.2 million bonus for being one of the top states in enrolling new beneficiaries.

That’s the amount the state got from the U. S. Department of Agriculture for enrolling thousands more residents to the rolls, despite having a 5 percent error rate.

Recently released USDA statistics show Minnesota logged one of the highest payment error rates in the country, ranking 40th for mistakes in 2012 in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services Quality Control Section reports error findings to the USDA monthly to “ensure SNAP participants receive the correct benefits, and to help preserve public confidence in the program.”

Minnesota DHS officials did not provide a response to inquiries from Watchdog Minnesota at the time of this posting.

About 4 percent of the errors involved an estimated $30.4 million in overpayments to food stamp recipients.  About 1 percent involved an estimated $7.63 million in underpayments to SNAP clients, a combined error rate in Minnesota of just more than 5 percent.

That compares to a 3.42 percent average payment error rate across all states, the best showing yet for the program nationally.

“We are working hard to ensure the taxpayer investment in SNAP is spent wisely, and that those who are eligible for the program receive the correct amount of benefits — not too much, and not too little,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services in a recent release.

The mistakes add up faster and are more costly with Minnesota’s 87 counties handling twice as many food stamp recipients as a decade ago. The number of Minnesotans signed up for food stamps reached 555,000 in April, compared to 235,000 in 2003.

Total payments in Minnesota have almost tripled in the last decade in unadjusted dollars, jumping from $227 million in 2003 to $750 million in 2012. The amount of misdirected SNAP funds also more than doubled from $18.1 million in 2003 to $38 million last year.

The most common mistakes identified were errors in applicants’ income calculations, data entry, identifying and deducting shelter and utility expenses, lack of documentation and verification requests.

The state’s 2012 program evaluation recommended that counties implement mandatory outside reviews of cases involving income, the biggest factor leading to mistakes.  The report said the reviews could help prevent mistaken payments and save time “collecting the debt which can often lead to intercepting household’s tax refunds when the debt is not voluntarily repaid.”

Despite record numbers of food stamp recipients, the annual program review estimates that almost 300,000 Minnesotans eligible for food stamps do not currently receive SNAP assistance.

A University of Minnesota study released in May found recipients collected an average of $278 in food stamp benefits per household in 2012.  UOM researchers looking into SNAP recipients’ nutritional intake found that “adults and children in households participating in SNAP obtained an average of 43 percent and 39 percent of their total daily calories from solid fats, alcohol, and added sugars respectively, twice that of the most generous discretionary calorie allowance in the MyPlate food guidance system. Overweight and obesity rates are higher among women and children in households participating in SNAP compared to low-income non-SNAP participants.”

Contact Tom Steward at tom@watchdogminnesota.org.

Part of 20 in the series EBT Investigation

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Tom Steward covers government waste, spending and policy issues in his home state of Minnesota. Also a documentary filmmaker and in-depth broadcast journalist, Tom's work has appeared on NPR, Animal Planet, WCCO-TV, WGBH-TV, PBS, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, KSTP-TV, CBC, among other outlets. Highlights include the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Peabody Award, the first footage in the wild of the endangered Sumatran tiger and rhino and countless individuals who shared their stories, big and small. Steward served as a communications strategist in the U.S. Senate before returning to reporting on issues and people often overlooked by other media.

  • James Michael Hamilton

    How are things in the cherry-picking businees, Mr. Steward?

    Lest your readers get the wrong impression, I quote from the study:

    “there is no strong evidence that participation in SNAP causes obesity”.
    The next time you go grocery shopping, try comparing the cost of carbohydrates and high fat foods to lean meats and fresh vegetables.