A proposed law would force states to recoup billions of dollars from waste and fraud in the federal food stamp program that was ignored during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to 2022 federal data, recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamp program, were paid a staggering $11 billion in overpayments — an increase from $3.4 billion in 2019.
Almost 80% of the illegal payments were due to government errors.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the states that provide food stamp aid to recipients have all but given up on clawing back the funds since 2019 — before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).
Federal regulators even exempted states from reporting data on overpayments and error rates in 2020 and 2021 during the outbreak.
The overpayment rate increased statewide from 6.18% in 2018 to 9.84% in fiscal year 2022.
In New York, the overpayment rate was even higher – rising from 5.9% in 2019 to 10.35% in 2022.
Ernst said the actual cost is unknown because overpayment errors totaling $54 or less per recipient are exempt from collection.
The senator’s bill would require states to refund any overpayments to recipients and pay what they owe to the federal government.
The bill also requires that all SNAP payment errors be reported, regardless of the amount.
Ernst even suggested that states could pocket some of the money.
“Families across the country are going hungry as bureaucrats jump the line to gobble up SNAP dollars, either as a meal ticket to supplement the state budget or as a self-service buffet of benefits for themselves or others who are not eligible,” said Ernst Die Post Office.
“I’m snapping back! It’s time for guilty states to pay the piper and absorb the cost of their taxpayers’ waste. Instead of overwhelming bureaucrats, we should end waste and give hungry families a seat at the table.”
Food stamp spending and enrollment exploded amid the pandemic.
There were more than 41 million Americans receiving food stamps in 2022, compared to about 35 million people in 2019.
During the same four-year period, food stamp spending rose to a record high of $119.5 billion, up from $60 billion in 2019.
According to an analysis by the Foundation for Government Accountability, food stamp spending has nearly doubled despite just 6 million additional enrollees.
The maximum monthly food stamp benefits in New York are $740 for a family of three, $939 for a family of four, $1,116 for a family of five, and $1,339 for a family of six.
“Food stamp fraud costs taxpayers millions and deprives those who truly need resources. “Congress should adopt essential program integrity measures to prevent fraud before it happens,” the FGA said.
In New York, there were numerous people who took advantage of the food stamp program, including government employees.
A city human resources employee was arrested in 2017 for using insider knowledge to create fake accounts and stealing more than $225,000 in food stamps and other benefits over a seven-year period, the state’s inspector general reported.
Two city HRA employees were also arrested in 2015 after exploiting flaws in the city’s welfare system to steal $2.1 million in food stamps and rental assistance — and then spending $120,000 on Red Bull, according to reports the authorities at the time announced.
The Agriculture Department declined to comment on Ernst’s SNAP accountability law.
However, a June statement acknowledged that states were not required to issue overpayments or error rates in the food stamp program during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
“USDA is committed to helping states improve payment accuracy in SNAP to ensure that the program effectively and efficiently serves those who need it and promotes good stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” the agency said.
“We are increasingly working with government partners to find ways to reduce payment errors and aggressively address the root of the problems. Together, we will continue to move toward a stronger, more efficient, and more modern future for SNAP and the people it serves.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office had no immediate comment.