SNAP oversight issues will be addressed in farm bill – High Plains Journal
Error rates in the administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are unacceptable and need to be addressed in the next farm bill, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, said Sept. 14.
He spoke during a hearing titled, “Nutrition Programs: Perspectives for the 2018 Farm Bill.”
“As we conduct this review, it is important to remember the purpose of these critical nutrition programs,” Roberts said.
“They are not about long-term dependency; they are about giving aid in times of trouble. They are about ensuring our nation’s security, helping folks become productive members of our economy and assisting the vulnerable among us who cannot help themselves.
“Unfortunately, we have learned of some significant issues regarding the administration and oversight of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.”
Investigations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, USDA’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Justice have revealed that states have purposely used “whatever means necessary” to mislead the federal government to obtain bonuses or avoid financial penalties, Roberts said.
“Simply put, no one knows the error rate of SNAP and that is unacceptable. And the federal government does not even know the basic elements of the problem, such as how long this has been occurring,” Roberts said.
“This program accounts for over 75 percent of farm bill spending. If we are unable to verify that this program is making every dollar count and ensure that the right amount of assistance is going to those that need it, then something needs to change. And something will change.”
Roberts said he was not talking about rampant fraud among users of the program. Rather, he was “talking about states cheating and gaming the system, resulting in an inability to even measure how many taxpayer dollars are being spent in error. This is not fair to taxpayers and it is certainly not fair to those who depend on this program.
“It is our duty to ensure that the integrity of this program, which is vital to those among us in need, can be measured and verified. Once that is accomplished, we must also ensure that this program is truly serving those in need, helping them to achieve self-sustainability and not hindering their ability to succeed.”
For her part, Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, said she also wants to ensure that oversight of SNAP at the state and federal level is working effectively.
“I look forward to hearing from the USDA and the Inspector General’s office today on the steps that are already being taken to ensure accuracy and timeliness in SNAP,” Stabenow said. “I also want to learn more about the ways we can support the work the Food and Nutrition Service is doing to strengthen the quality control system. As we look ahead, we will continue to fine-tune programs and protect food access for millions of families.”
Brandon Lipps, acting deputy undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition and consumer services and administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service, testified that while the agency had no direct evidence initially, USDA had questions about the reliability of state data it reviewed in fiscal year 2014.
“The error rate reductions appeared to happen too quickly, like falling off a cliff,” Lipps said. “These observations suggested that FNS needed to explore these state-generated datasets in new ways. They began reviewing a few states’ quality control processes in April 2015 and quickly determined that an in-depth review of all 53 SNAP agencies was warranted.
“What they found truly surprised and greatly concerned our experts. Many states were bypassing our data controls. In some cases these were inadvertent process errors, but more often, states were altering what information and data they reported to FNS so federal reviewers would not even see many of the errors. Therefore, we could not detect this level of bias until we developed the new statistical measures to catch it.”
With that evidence, FNS has revised its practices to include oversight of the states to make federal review processes more robust, such as FNS audits of state quality control operations annually as part of regular oversight and monitoring activities. “FNS is planning to conduct over 20 state audits in FY 2018,” Lipps said.
Stabenow added she wants to make sure problems seen with SNAP are not caused by users of the program.
“This is a point worth repeating—SNAP supports families, “ Stabenow said. Nearly half of SNAP recipients are children and the vast majority of SNAP recipients are children, seniors, disabled or parents and caregivers living in these households.
While Lipps’ testimony was compelling, the testimony of Bryan Parker, a Navy veteran from Oklahoma who fell on bad times after he returned to his hometown of Tulsa and lost his job, that brought the hearing room to a hush.
Parker told the senators of his life in the Navy, having spent 20 years in Japan in various businesses, then returning to Tulsa in 2010 to be near his two grown daughters and to work in the restaurant industry, where he held every position from dishwasher to general manager, then lost his job three years ago.
“During this hard time, SNAP has been a lifesaver to me,” Parker, 51, said. “Not only has it given me the nutrition to stay alive, but it has given me hope. You can endure a lot of pain and suffering in life, but one thing you can’t withstand is having no food and being hungry. I am very thankful for the SNAP benefits I’m receiving while trying to get back on my feet.”
Parker said he is now enrolled in the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma’s Culinary Trade Program. When he graduates, he will have a manager’s license in food safety.
“The program will also help place me in a job in the restaurant industry. I ultimately want to work in a professional kitchen and with hard work, one day own my own restaurant because cooking is my passion,” Parker said.
“None of this would be possible without the help of SNAP and the Culinary Trade Program. I see every day how important SNAP is to many lives in my community. SNAP helps to take away just one more daily worry that most people don’t even consider—hunger. I would be in a different situation than I am now if it weren’t for SNAP. I would probably be homeless.”
Stabenow told the committee, “It is important that we keep real people in mind, like Mr. Parker, as we consider changes to nutrition assistance in the farm bill.”
Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.