Food Stamp Overpayments:

Thousands of Deceased Individuals Are Being Counted as Household Members

RCED-98-53: Published: Feb 11, 1998. Publicly Released: Mar 10, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Food Stamp Program, focusing on: (1) how many deceased individuals were included as members of households that received food stamp benefits and the estimated value of improper benefits that were issued to the households; (2) how these individuals could be included without being detected; and (3) whether computer matching or other methods could effectively identify such individuals.

GAO noted that: (1) GAO identified nearly 26,000 deceased individuals in the four states GAO reviewed who were included in households receiving food stamps for the 2-year period 1995 through 1996; (2) these households improperly collected an estimated $8.5 million in food stamps benefits; (3) the inclusion of deceased individuals in food stamp households goes undetected because agencies rely primarily on unverified information on household membership provided by food stamp applicants and participants; (4) states are not required to match applicant-provided social security numbers with the social security numbers of deceased individuals; (5) however, several state agencies match information on the applicant's household members with information on deceased individuals from their state's vital statistics agency; (6) these states' efforts have had mixed success because the states have not always had verified, comprehensive death information; (7) while the Social Security Administration (SSA) makes information on its deceased beneficiaries available to state agencies through its State Verification and Exchange System, this information is limited to the recipients of specific SSA benefits; (8) states' computer matching of individuals in food stamp households with data in SSA's more comprehensive Death Master File would provide a cost-effective mechanism to accurately and independently identify deceased individuals included in food stamp households; (9) it would be even more cost-effective, however, for SSA to notify the states when a food stamp participant dies, rather than having the states conduct computer matches, because SSA already has a system in place to identify deceased individuals who received food stamp benefits but not social security benefits; and (10) furthermore, some states place restrictions on the use of the death data they provide to SSA; the agency currently does not have the authority to disclose restricted death information to other states administering federal benefit programs.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On November 12, 1998, the President signed P.L. 105-379, amending the Food Stamp Act of 1977, to require each state agency to enter into a cooperative agreement with the Commissioner of Social Security to obtain information on deceased individuals and use the information to ensure that benefits are not issued to deceased individuals. The recommendation, if enacted would allow SSA to act unilaterally in releasing data on deceased individuals obtained from states. The congressional action taken requires cooperation between SSA and the states and does not allow SSA to act unilaterally.

    Matter: In order to ensure the integrity of the Food Stamp Program by preventing deceased individuals from being counted as household members, Congress should enact legislation to enable SSA to disclose all information from its Death Master File to the states administering the Food Stamp Program.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and SSA officials have held a number of meetings aimed at using SSA death master file data to identify and remove ineligible individuals from the food stamp roles. In its response to Congress on planned actions on the recommendation, FNS wrote that it is sending a letter to all the states to encourage them to use death records to remove deceased individuals from the food stamp rolls.

    Recommendation: Until Congress enacts legislation to enable SSA to disclose all information from its Death Master File to the states administering the Food Stamp Program, the Secretary of Agriculture should work with the Commissioner of Social Security to encourage the states to voluntarily allow such disclosures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FNS provided its Regional Food Program Directors a copy of the report to apprise them of its findings. FNS also sent copies of the report to state food stamp program administrators and has sponsored and participated in a number of conferences in which the report findings were discussed and states were encouraged to take action to identify and remove deceased individuals from the food stamp rolls.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Food and Nutrition Service to emphasize to the states the need to identify deceased individuals and remove them from the rolls of food stamp households.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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