Food Stamps:

Substantial Overpayments Result From Prisoners Counted as Household Members

RCED-97-54: Published: Mar 10, 1997. Publicly Released: Mar 10, 1997.

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GAO provided information on Food Stamp Program overpayments, focusing on: (1) how many prisoners were included as members of households that received food stamp benefits, hereafter referred to as prisoner participation, and the estimated value of improper benefits that were issued to the households; (2) how prisoner participation could take place without detection; and (3) whether computer matching can be an effective method for identifying prisoner participation.

GAO noted that: (1) despite federal regulations prohibiting inmates of correctional institutions from participating in the Food Stamp Program, GAO identified 12,138 inmates in the areas it examined who were included in households receiving food stamps; (2) these households improperly collected an estimated $3.5 million in food stamp benefits; (3) prisoner participation goes undetected because agencies generally do not verify the information on household membership provided by food stamp applicants; (4) furthermore, according to officials of the Department of Agriculture's Food Stamp Program, most state or local agencies responsible for administering the program do not routinely collect and review lists of individuals incarcerated in state and local facilities to determine whether any of these individuals are being counted as members of food stamp households; (5) given the program's reliance on client-provided information, computer matching of lists of prisoners and food stamp household members provides a straightforward and potentially effective mechanism to accurately and independently identify prisoners' participation; and (6) while states have implemented various computer matching routines, such as the Income and Eligibility Verification System, which compares data on welfare clients with data on state and federal wages and benefits, many states have not yet implemented a computer matching program to identify prisoners participating in the Food Stamp Program.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its official response to the report, FCS told GAO and the pertinent Congressional committees that it was writing to the states to publicize the report findings and to recommend adoption of prison roll matching against food stamp program participants. On March 13, 1997, FCS provided its Regional Food Stamp Program Directors a copy of the report to apprise them of the report's findings. FCS also contacted the Social Security Administration (SSA), which has developed a national database of prisoners that can be used by states to implement food stamp matching programs. In addition, the President signed P.L. 105-33 on August 5, 1977, which mandates that state agencies establish a system, such as computer matching, to ensure that prisoners do not participate in the food stamp program as household members.

    Recommendation: To identify state and county prisoners who are included as members of households receiving food stamps, the Secretary of Agriculture should actively encourage states to implement periodic computer matches of data on state and local prison inmates with data on participants in the Food Stamp Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 1998, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), formerly FCS, directed its regions to forward implementing guidance on how the states are to institute a verification system by August 1998, as required by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, to ensure that prisoners are not receiving food stamps. FNS planned and hosted a working meeting in April 1998 with SSA, the Department of Justice, the American Correctional Association, and several states to identify and discuss problems that may arise in implementing a prisoner verification system. FNS granted states implementation delays until SSA makes prisoner data available, estimated to be completed in late 1998. FNS has told GAO and the pertinent congressional committees that it will sponsor during the next year working sessions at appropriate conferences of state Food Stamp Program managers to enable the sharing of best practices so that states may adopt cost-effective methods of prisoner data matching.

    Recommendation: To facilitate this effort, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Food and Consumer Service (FCS) to: (1) collect from the states that conduct matches information on the policies and procedures used to implement their matches; and (2) evaluate, summarize, and disseminate to the states the policies and procedures that represent best practices, such as the verification of prisoners' social security numbers with the Social Security Administration.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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