Food Stamp Program:

Households Collect Benefits for Persons Disqualified for Intentional Program Violations

RCED-99-180: Published: Jul 8, 1999. Publicly Released: Aug 9, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on households collecting Food Stamp benefits for persons disqualified for intentional program violations, focusing on: (1) how many individuals were included as members of food stamp households in four states while disqualified from the program in calendar year 1997 and estimated the value of the benefits that were improperly issued to those households; and (2) why these individuals were improperly included in households and what actions the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state agencies could take to detect and prevent disqualified participation.

GAO noted that: (1) over 3,000 disqualified individuals in the four states GAO reviewed were improperly counted as members in households that received food stamp benefits during calendar year 1997; (2) while GAO cannot estimate the potential amount of overpayments received nationwide for individuals who participated while disqualified, the households in the four states GAO reviewed improperly collected about $500,000 in food stamp benefits; (3) the $500,000 in overpayments, while small in relation to the $5.6 billion in food stamps distributed to 6.4 million individuals in these four states, undermine USDA's accomplishments and ongoing efforts to ensure the program's integrity; (4) about 70 percent of the disqualified participation GAO identified was attributable to weaknesses in state processes for the timely removal of individuals from the food stamp rolls after they have been disqualified; (5) about 30 percent of the disqualified participation that GAO identified occurred because the states did not check USDA's national database of disqualified individuals to determine if household members had been disqualified by another state or because of delays in updating information in the database; (6) furthermore, USDA's database is incomplete and contains errors; therefore, even if state agencies check the database, they may not receive full and accurate disqualification information; (7) GAO could not estimate, however, the amount of additional disqualified participation attributable to this problem; and (8) USDA could help the states reduce disqualified participation by sharing best practices for imposing disqualifications promptly and requiring states to check its national database of disqualification information for applicants.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service stated that resource constraints prohibit a formal "best practices" survey, but that it will share, informally through regional offices, information about any state's Disqualified Recipient Subsystem (DRS) operations that it believes will be of benefit to other states.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure the integrity of the Food Stamp Program by preventing disqualified participation without imposing significant additional program costs to achieve this goal, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), to collect, analyze, and disseminate state agencies' best practices to help ensure timely action on disqualifications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service is publishing a proposed regulation "Food Stamp Program: Disqualified Recipient Subsystem Reporting and Computer Matching Requirements that Affect the Food Stamp Program" in 2003, with the final rule to follow. The regulation will require states to use the national database to determine the disqualification status of applicants and/or recipients.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure the integrity of the Food Stamp Program by preventing disqualified participation without imposing significant additional program costs to achieve this goal, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, FNS, to require states to use the national database to determine the disqualification status of applicants, using the method that each deems most appropriate to its circumstances.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FNS completed and delivered its study on creating a national database to track participation in federal means tested public assistance programs to Congress on November 12, 1999. The study included matching food stamp participation data with information contained in other databases such as the DRS. The study concluded that creating a national database would be cost-effective way of ensuring program integrity.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure the integrity of the Food Stamp Program by preventing disqualified participation without imposing significant additional program costs to achieve this goal, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, FNS, to consider, as part of its study on the feasibility of creating a national database to track participation in federal means-tested public assistance programs, a process for periodically matching the disqualification database and disseminating the resulting matches to the states.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service has revised and added edits, such as an edit to prevent the submission of disqualification with erroneous start dates, to ensure the accuracy of the data in the Disqualified Recipient Subsystem. The Food and Nutrition Service is also in the process of developing guidance for its regional offices, including training and reference materials, to improve the monitoring of state data transmissions.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure the integrity of the Food Stamp Program by preventing disqualified participation without imposing significant additional program costs to achieve this goal, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, FNS, to take actions to ensure that the states provide the Disqualified Recipient Subsystem (DRS) with disqualification information in a consistent and timely manner, that the data in the DRS are accurate, and that sufficient controls are in place to ensure the accuracy of data submitted to the database.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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