Food Stamp Misuse Is At An All-Time Low


At the same time that Republicans were justifying cuts to food stamps by slandering the program as error-riddled and wasteful, the system was delivering its lowest erroneous payments rate of all time, according to newly released data. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) overpayments rate and overall error rate hit all-time lows in 2013, marking the seventh straight year of declining error rates in the country’s premier food assistance program.

The amount of SNAP money issued to the wrong people or overpaid to the right people — the overpayments rate — fell to 2.6 percent of total spending. Money that didn’t get paid but should have — the underpayments rate — amounted to 0.6 percent. That gives the program a combined error rate of 3.2 percent, according to numbers USDA published last week. All three are record lows, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes, and “more than 99 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to eligible households.”

The total error rate for SNAP does not reflect the actual cost of errors to the government, because it includes underpayments. The net loss to taxpayers from SNAP errors in 2013 was just 2 percent of the program’s spending. Food stamps enjoys one of the lowest error rates of any public benefit program in the country, and imposes far lower net costs due to error than, say, tax evasion: “16.9 percent of taxes legally due in 2006 (the most recently studied year) went unpaid,” CBPP adds.

The USDA data breaks all three figures out by state and U.S. territory as well, and while there is significant variation among states the CBPP report also points out that there has been a significant shift and positive shift in the distribution of error rates in states. While just 13 states or territories had error rates below 6 percent in 2002, 47 were below that threshold in 2013:


CREDIT: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The SNAP numbers are all the more impressive given how many more people have had to rely on the program since the financial crisis and ensuing recession. The USDA and state officials who administer SNAP managed to break their own records for accuracy despite having to process far more payments and applications for assistance than they did in the pre-recession years of the early 2000s when error rates were far higher.

By contrast, farm programs like crop insurance have far higher erroneous payment rates. One estimate late last year by the USDA put the crop insurance overpayment rate at 4.84 percent, and the total error rate for the farm program at 5.23 percent.

The same Republicans who insisted on cutting SNAP by about 1 percent in the most recent farm bill supported expanding the crop insurance program. While Democrats in Congress and the White House acquiesced to that pressure from the right, the tradition of painting food stamps as a wasteful and error-riddled program is a conservative one. The numbers just released by the USDA show that the program is in fact a far better steward of taxpayer dollars than the USDA programs that enrich wealthy landowners, insurance companies, and massive agribusinesses.