GAO: $460 million food stamp benefits went to households ineligible under federal limits

Caroline May | Reporter

The Government Accountability Office has identified $460 million dollars in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp, benefits that went to households with incomes over the federal SNAP eligibility limits.

The recently released report explains that for fiscal year 2010, states which have expanded eligibility for SNAP through broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) made 473,000 additional households eligible SNAP benefits, resulting in an estimated $38 million a month in extra costs, or $460 million in total.

Since 1999, BBCE has allowed households that receive any services funded by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to receive SNAP benefits. These TANF services can be as minor as using a toll-free number or getting a brochure, and automatically make you eligible for food stamps regardless of your income.

According to another recent report by the Congressional Research Service, more than 40 states and jurisdictions employ BBCE, according to GAO in 2006 just 7 states used BBCE policies.

GAO points out that in the last decade participation in SNAP has doubled and the costs have quadrupled.

The report concludes that BBCE “potentially had a negative effect on SNAP program integrity,” noting that while errors are down in the program the new error low is likely not correlated with the program and BBCE might actually be leading to additional problems.

“In addition, BBCE has led to unintended consequences for SNAP and related programs. For example, in implementing BBCE, some states are designating SNAP applicants as categorically eligible without providing them with the service required to make this determination,” GAO adds.

“Further, likely because they are unaware of recent USDA guidance, some states certify children for free school meals when their households are determined eligible for SNAP, even though they do not receive SNAP benefits—a result more common in states with BBCE,” GAO explains. “Finally, because of federal guidance on BBCE, rules for reporting changes in household circumstances now differ by household income level and may leave higher- income households without reporting requirements for several months.”

GAO recommended that USDA examine BBCE implementation procedures in states, get information to states on the certification requirements school meals for SNAP households, and review the SNAP reporting requirements for households. According to GAO “USDA generally” agreed with the recommendations.

Currently one in seven Americans are on food stamps. In the 1970’s, one in 50 was enrolled in the program. After the economy improves, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the ratio will be one in nine.

The high participation rate and increasing cost inspired the report, which was commissioned Senate Budget Committee ranking member Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and the House Agriculture Committee leadership.

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