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GAO study finds improper payment rates in SNAP

WASHINGTON – Over the last 10 years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reported that improper payment rates for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have ranged from an estimated 5.8% to 3.2% of all payments, likely reflecting, certain policy changes and calculation methods.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are many circumstances that can affect low-income households’ qualification for SNAP and the amount of help they receive. Which, creates multiple opportunities for errors in the eligibility determination process organized by states. However, GAO found that there are particular state or federal program modifications that can affect the likelihood of these errors.

For example, when states adopted available policy adjustability, that simplified or lessened participant reporting requirements, these changes reduced the opportunity for error and led to a decline in the improper payment rate, according to a USDA study. Contrarily, other changes may have led to an increase in the improper payment rate. USDA cited the change from only counting errors over $50 in the rate to counting all errors over $37 as a key factor in an increase in the rate in fiscal year 2014.

In fiscal year 2015, SNAP, the nation’s largest nutrition assistance program, provided about 46 million low-income people with $70 billion in benefits. USDA and the states partner to operate the program and address issues that affect program integrity, including improper payments and fraud. GAO’s recently completed work on SNAP improper payment rates and GAO’s 2014 report on recipient fraud. It addresses the effects of SNAP policies on the rates; how the SNAP improper payment rate calculation methodology compares to those of other federal programs for low-income individuals; and GAO’s 2014 findings on efforts to combat SNAP recipient fraud. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, guidance, documents, and program data; interviewed relevant federal officials; and gathered information from states. For the 2014 report, GAO also interviewed officials from 11 states that served about a third of all SNAP recipient households, though GAO’s results are not generalizable to all states. This testimony also includes USDA’s actions to date on GAO’s 2014 recommendations.

In 2014, GAO recommended that USDA take several steps to improve state financial incentives, fraud detection tools, and reporting methods. USDA agreed with these recommendations and has taken some steps to address them. GAO is not making new recommendations at this time.