Food Stamp Program:

Farm Bill Options Ease Administrative Burden, but Opportunities Exist to Streamline Participant Reporting Rules among Programs

GAO-04-916: Published: Sep 16, 2004. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 2004.

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Many individuals familiar with the Food Stamp Program view its rules as unnecessarily complex, creating an administrative burden for participants and caseworkers. In addition many participants receive benefits from other programs that have different program rules, adding to the complexity of accurately determining program benefits and eligibility. The 2002 Farm Bill introduced new options to help simplify the program. This report examines (1) which options states have chosen to implement and why, and (2) what changes local officials reported as a result of using these options. Selected results from GAO's web-based survey of food stamp administrators are provided in an e-supplement to this report, GAO-04-1058SP. Another e-supplement, GAO-04-1059SP, contains results from the local food stamp office surveys.

As of January 2004, states chose four of the eight Farm Bill options with greater frequency than the others. These options provided states with more flexibility in requiring participants to report changes and in determining eligibility. The most common reasons state officials gave for choosing the eight options were to simplify program rules for participants and caseworkers. Local food stamp officials reported mixed results from implementing the Farm Bill options. Although they reported some improvements for both caseworkers and participants from some options, no option received consistent positive reports in all the areas where state officials expected improvements. In fact, in many cases, officials were as likely to report that an option resulted in no change as they were to report improvements. Moreover, many local officials reported that three options introduced complications in program rules. One option that offered the most promise because it was selected by most states and affects a large number of participants resulted in food stamp participant reporting rules that differed from Medicaid and TANF. These differences resulted in confusion for food stamp participants and caseworkers, and some changes were made that undermined the intended advantages of the option. These problems reflect the challenge of trying to simplify rules for one program without making the rules of other related programs the same. Concerns about whether there are costs associated with aligning reporting rules may hinder a state's decision to pursue alignment; yet the extent to which program costs might increase as a result of making reporting rules the same is unclear.

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