Food Stamp Overpayments:

Households in Different States Collect Benefits for the Same Individuals

RCED-98-228: Published: Aug 6, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 8, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on ineligible individuals who are improperly participating in the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Stamp Program, focusing on: (1) determining how many individuals were included as members of food stamp households in more than one state during 1996 and the estimated value of the benefits that were improperly issued to those households; (2) determining how these individuals could be improperly included without being detected; and (3) identifying an option for detecting or preventing future food stamp overpayments caused by such duplicate participation.

GAO noted that: (1) among the four widely separated states GAO reviewed, GAO identified over 20,000 individuals who were potentially improperly included in food stamp households in at least two of those four states at the same time during calendar year 1996; (2) while GAO cannot estimate the potential amount of overpayments nationwide due to this duplicate participation, the households in those four states improperly collected an estimated $3.9 million in food stamp benefits; (3) additional evidence of the scope of this problem is indicated by a September 1997 Department of Health and Human Services computer match of 15 states and the District of Columbia, which found 18,000 potential cases of duplicate participation in the public assistance programs, including food stamps; (4) interstate duplicate participation goes undetected because there is no national system to identify food stamp participation in more than one state; (5) welfare reform legislation of 1996 contains work requirements for the Food Stamp Program and time limits for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families that can be fully enforced only by interstate tracking of participation in public assistance programs; (6) however, the law does not require a national tracking system to be established, and no federal agency is responsible for creating a national system to facilitate such tracking; (7) although the states have been working individually to modify their systems to meet welfare reform requirements, few states have made progress in developing automated systems to track participation outside their borders; (8) while states may currently learn of some duplicate participation from the Social Security Administration or through their own matching efforts with neighboring states, they rely primarily on applicants and clients to truthfully identify who resides in their households; (9) in the absence of a comprehensive national database or information system to track participants receiving public assistance, creating a USDA-managed system to collect and disseminate information on national participation in the Food Stamp Program could provide an efficient and effective means to identify duplicate participation and help prevent food stamp overpayments; (10) rather than relying on states to individually develop programs to identify and prevent duplicate participation, it would be more efficient for USDA to develop a single nationwide system; and (11) once established, such a system could be expanded to track additional information that would help states enforce welfare reform provisions relating to food stamps.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FNS has addressed and completed this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In the absence of a comprehensive national information system on participants in all public assistance programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), to consider establishing a central system to help ensure that individuals participating in the Food Stamp Program are not being improperly included as household members in more than one state concurrently. As part of this effort, FNS should conduct a feasibility study to identify options and provide a cost-benefit estimate for each option.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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