USDA officials to testify at SNAP hearing, focus on SNAP payment rate
For several years, anti-hunger advocates have cited the low payment error rate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as primary evidence that the nation’s largest nutrition program works.
But today (Sept. 14), officials from the agriculture department and USDA’s Office of the Inspector General are expected to testify it is no longer possible to determine the payment error rate for the program once known as food stamps because the recordkeeping at the state agencies that administer SNAP has been so poor, and because the agencies have resisted attempts from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to determine what the actual error rate is.
The testimony is likely to provide a challenge to both anti-hunger and farm leaders who have resisted conservative criticism that SNAP is out of control and should be turned into a block grant to the states. Some anti-hunger advocates may not be pleased the committee is highlighting the problem.
But Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has long held the view that USDA nutrition programs have to be above reproach. The hearing appears to be the beginning of an attempt to rectify these problems as part of farm bill reauthorization.
According to USDA, the national error rate for overpayments and underpayments fell from 9 percent in fiscal year 2000 to 6.63 percent in 2003 to 3.22 percent in 2014.
But since then FNS found the states have so weakened the quality control process that it has been impossible to determine the error rate. Although FNS has investigated the states, testimony by the inspector general’s office also is expected to fault FNS’s oversight of the program. The Justice Department also has become involved in the situation in some states.
Bonuses to the states for high payment-accuracy rates are believed to have encouraged the states to try to hide errors.
Although SNAP critics in the past have cited anecdotal cases of individuals who have gotten benefits inappropriately, this testimony is expected not to focus on program participants but on FNS and the state agencies that run the program.
Although even the 3.22 percent error rate meant USDA and the states were wasting about $10 billion per year in taxpayer funds, the amount was small in comparison with $71 billion in total spending. But a higher error rate could mean that much more taxpayer money has been misspent.
A second panel will focus on issues such as how to help SNAP beneficiaries find work and a pilot project for online SNAP purchases.
Written testimony from the witnesses is expected to be posted on the committee website about 15 minutes before the hearing begins at 9:30 a.m. in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building.