Opposing Republican-proposed cuts in food stamps, U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego suggested the program doesn’t waste money.
After airing qualms about cutting “things that work well” during a May 15 meeting of the House Agriculture Committee, the Democrat from Alpine said that some government programs have high error rates but that the error rates for food stamps, meaning the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, “are only 3 percent. … Ninety-seven percent of SNAP benefits are paid in the proper amounts to people who are really eligible.”
We noted that Gallego referred to administrative errors and not fraud. A Feb. 6, 2012, Reuters news story quoted Kevin Concannon, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, as saying that fraud at that time accounted for 1 percent of food stamp benefits, while costing the government $750 million a year. “This is $750 million that isn’t being used to provide food to individuals and families, and that issue isn’t lost on us,” Concannon said.
Gallego’s claim did not speak to food-stamp trafficking scams. But are 97 percent of food stamp benefits paid in proper amounts to eligible residents, as he said?
Gallego spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña attributed the percentage to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal, Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The center said in a May 10 blog post: “Only 3 percent of SNAP benefits represent overpayments, meaning they either went to ineligible households or went to eligible households but in excessive amounts. SNAP achieved its lowest error rate on record in fiscal year 2011, with a national overpayment rate of just 2.99 percent. The underpayment rate that year was 0.81 percent. Thus, the net loss to the federal government — the amounts lost through overpayments minus those saved by underpayments — was only 2.2 percent.”
Also, the center said, relatively “few payment errors reflect dishonesty or fraud. The overwhelming majority result from honest mistakes by recipients, eligibility workers, data entry clerks, or computer programmers. States report that almost 60 percent of the dollar value of overpayments and almost 90 percent of the dollar value of underpayments were their fault, not recipients’. Much of the rest of the overpayments resulted from innocent errors by households that had trouble navigating SNAP’s complex rules.”
Information posted online by the Agriculture Department tracks with the center’s blog post.
Separately, we contacted Kay Brown, an analyst who has studied the food stamp program for the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Brown said that she has “no problem” with Gallego’s wording in that the government does assess whether the proper amounts are paid to eligible recipients.
Brown also said told us improper payments caused by participants’ failures to report required, complete or correct information, such as household income and composition, don’t necessarily indicate attempts to cheat. But a May 5, 2005, General Accountability Office report noted, “We could not determine the percentage of payment errors that involve participants intentionally withholding information.” Nationally in 2003, the report said, about 5 percent of all payment errors were referred for fraud investigation.
Our ruling: We are mindful that Gallego’s claim did not speak to misdeeds that can occur once someone receives food stamps. Setting that aside, nearly 3 percent of such payments were overpayments in fiscal 2011, the latest year of available data, and nearly 1 percent were underpayments, according to the government. That’s a total of about 96 percent.
Gallego’s statement comes close enough. We rate it as True.
Statement: Says 97 percent of food stamp benefits “are paid in the proper amounts to people who are really eligible.”