Food Stamp Program:

Use of Alternative Methods to Apply for and Maintain Benefits Could Be Enhanced by Additional Evaluation and Information on Promising Practices

GAO-07-573: Published: May 3, 2007. Publicly Released: May 3, 2007.

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One in 12 Americans participates in the federal Food Stamp Program, administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). States have begun offering individuals alternatives to visiting the local assistance office to apply for and maintain benefits, such as mail-in procedures, call centers, and on-line services. GAO was asked to examine: (1) what alternative methods states are using to increase program access; (2) what is known about the results of these methods, particularly on program access for target groups, decision accuracy, and administrative costs; and (3) what actions states have taken to maintain program integrity while implementing alternative methods. GAO surveyed state food stamp administrators, reviewed five states in depth, analyzed FNS data and reports, and interviewed program officials and stakeholders.

All states use mail and about half of states use or have begun developing on-line services and call centers to provide access to the food stamp program. Almost all states allow households to submit applications, report changes, and submit recertifications through the mail, and 26 states have implemented or are developing systems for households to perform these tasks on-line. Almost half of the states are using or developing call centers and states also are allowing households to participate in telephone interviews instead of an in-office interview. States have taken a variety of actions to help households use on-line services and call centers, such as sending informational mailings, holding community meetings, and using community partners. Insufficient information is available to determine the results of using alternative methods. Few evaluations have been conducted identifying the effect of alternative methods on program access, decision accuracy, or administrative costs. Evaluating the effectiveness of alternative methods is challenging in part because limited data are available, states are using a combination of methods, and studies can be costly to conduct. Federal and state officials reported that while they believe alternative methods can help households in several ways, such as increasing flexibility and efficiency in the application process, certain types of households may have difficulty using or accessing alternative methods. In addition, technology and staffing challenges may hinder the use of alternative methods. To maintain program integrity while implementing alternative methods, the states GAO reviewed used a variety of strategies, such as using software to verify the information households submit, communicating with other states to detect fraud, or using finger imaging. Although there has been some concern that without frequent in-person interaction with caseworkers, households may not submit required documents on time and thus be denied benefits on procedural grounds ("procedural denials"), GAO's limited analysis of FNS data found no considerable fluctuations in the rate of procedural denials in the five states between fiscal years 2000 and 2005. The states GAO reviewed have instituted several approaches to prevent procedural denials.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) reported engaging in multiple activities with the Economic Research Service to share and coordinate research issues and priorities. Such activities include participation in the formal Economic Research Service research planning conference, sharing a panel at the annual State Food Stamp Directors meeting, participation in technical panels to review grant and contract proposals, shared study briefings, and providing inter-Agency liaisons for specific studies. Many of these activities include discussion of Food Stamp Program modernization and its effect on costs, program access, and payment accuracy.

    Recommendation: To improve the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) ability to assess the effectiveness of its funded efforts, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS and the Economic Research Service to work together to enhance their research agendas to include projects that would complement ongoing research efforts and determine the effect of alternative methods on program access, decision accuracy, and administrative costs. Such projects would reliably identify the alternative methods that are effective and the factors that contribute to their success.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Agency has three studies underway to examine Food Stamp/SNAP modernization, including a study of alternatives to face-to-face interviews. The first is focused on identifying performance standards and reporting alternatives to assess different components of SNAP modernization. A second project, similar to the 2008 Food and Nutrition Service (FNS)-funded study that analyzed modernization in Florida, is a set of case studies in 6 states that have made comprehensive and mature modernization changes to the SNAP program. The final project assesses the effects of alternatives to in-person interviews on SNAP participation and payment accuracy.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA's ability to assess the effectiveness of its funded efforts, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS to conduct analyses of data received from states implementing waivers or demonstration projects waiving the face-to-face interview and require states implementing waivers or demonstration projects to collect and report data that would facilitate such analyses. Such analyses would identify the effect of the waivers on outcomes such as payment accuracy and could help determine whether the use of the waiver should be further expanded or inform whether regulations should be changed to allow telephone interviews for all households without documenting hardship.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FNS launched several initiatives to provide technical assistance to state agencies on program policy options and operations that might improve program access. In its 2009 SNAP State Options report, Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) provided information about which states have adopted alternative methods such as call centers and online applications, how states are using the methods, and the benefits to adopting the methods. In FY 2010, FNS regional offices held forums with state agencies to discuss modernization activities, share best practices and to identify technical assistance needs. In March 2010, FNS released a Program Access Toolkit designed to help state agencies and local offices identify ways to improve program access in their communities. Specifically, this toolkit describes ways these agencies can make changes to local office procedures, implement new policies, improve technologies and develop demonstration project and participation grant projects that improve access to SNAP benefits. FNS has also developed more in-depth analyses of call centers, document imaging and on-line application assessments that have been shared with all state agencies. In addition, FNS is currently profiling business process redesign efforts in four states to develop a roadmap for business process redesign activities that other states can use. Finally, FNS is creating a web-site to provide one-stop access to information on both the process of business process re-engineering in SNAP, state experiences and modernization research.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should help states implement alternative methods to provide access to the Food Stamp Program by directing FNS to disseminate and regularly update information on practices states are using to implement alternative access methods to the traditional application and recertification process. The information would not be merely a listing of practices attempted, but would include details on what factors or contexts seemed to make a particular practice successful and what factors may have reduced its effectiveness.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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