Was Violent Felon Ban on Food Stamps Accepted With False Data?

Louisiana Sen. Vitter claims massive fraud in his state is reason for felon ban on foods stamps, but no data supports that.

By Brentin Mock May 24, 2013

When Democrats and Republicans unanimously accepted Sen. David Vitter’s amendment (#1056) that would ban violent felons from receiving food stamps during a Senate debate earlier this week, that proposal may have been launched from poor facts.

In Sen. Vitter’s press release about the amendment, he exclusively cites a report from Louisiana’s legislative auditor’s report to justify his amendment. For Vitter’s focus on those convicted of violent felonies, you’d think there was some information about the abundance of felons using food stamps. Quite the contrary, there’s not a single word in the report about violent felons.

Vitter’s press release doesn’t mention anything from the report on felons abusing food stamps either. He does point to other fraud the auditor found:

The audit covered the fiscal years from 2010 to 2012 and found that there were duplicate and overpayments of millions. The results show that more than $1.1 million was issued to 1,761 people who were in prison, 322 people gained benefits even though their wages exceeded $50,000, and 3,060 people used $2 million worth of benefits in a state other than Louisiana.

Few things here: One, that same report noted that 1,157 cases that resulted in $841,615 in overpayments happened because of state agency errors — mistakes "such as a caseworker entering incorrect income amounts or failing to remove an ineligible member from the case."

That may seem like a big deal, but consider those are totals for 2010 and 2011. Total SNAP benefits in those years totaled $2.5 billion in Louisiana. $840,000 in overpayments from $2.5 billion is rather minute. What this has to do with former incarcerated citizens with violent felonies is unclear.

Not to mention, Louisiana has one of the lowest overpayment rates in the nation — of all the states last year they ranked fourth in low overpayment error rates, and had the second highest improvement among all the states.

This improvement happened while the state’s administrative burdens increased. From 2008 to 2012 the workload for SNAP administrative increased 76 percent — 259,770 cases to 380,011 cases — mostly because of the economic recession. Meanwhile, staffing at the state’s SNAP offices decreased from 1,315 to 1,090 caseworkers.

But the number of erroneous cases alone might explain some of the questionable findings in the auditor’s report, such as prison inmates using food stamps (How exactly does that work?).

As for the 3,060 who spent $2 billion in SNAP benefits in other states, Vitter fails to mention that this is legal. SNAP beneficiaries receive their food allocations by their resident state, but those can be used anywhere in the United States. That this might indicate fraud is purely speculative.

Fraud isn’t a major problem in the SNAP program at large. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the national program achieved its lowest overpayment error rate on record in 2011. "The overwhelming majority [of errors] result from honest mistakes by recipients, eligibility workers, data entry clerks, or computer programmers," writes CBPP senior policy analyst Dottie Rosenbaum.