More About Dottie Rosenbaum

Dottie Rosenbaum

Rosenbaum is a Senior Policy Analyst focusing primarily on federal and state issues in the Food Stamp Program as well as issues that involve the coordination of food stamps and other state-administered health and income security programs, such as Medicaid, TANF, and child care. In addition, Rosenbaum has expertise on the federal budget and budget process.

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SNAP Errors Falling Across the Country

July 7, 2014 at 2:55 pm

We recently pointed out that SNAP (food stamp) errors nationally hit another all-time low last year.  The improvement has been widespread across the country, as a comparison of states’ “combined error rates” — the share of benefits that are overpayments or underpayments — shows.

Between 2002 (before new rules for state penalties and performance bonuses took effect) and 2013, the number of states with combined error rates under 6 percent jumped from 13 to 47.  At the other end of the spectrum, the number of states with combined error rates over 10 percent fell from nine to zero (see chart).

The large drop in error rates has dramatically raised the bar for the annual bonuses that the Agriculture Department (USDA) gives states with relatively low or significantly improved error rates.  The average combined payment error rate of states receiving bonuses fell from 4.6 percent in 2002 to 1.6 percent in 2013.

The drop in error rates has also raised the bar for states to avoid penalties for poor performance.  Eleven of the 17 states that USDA identified as poor performers in 2013 due to their relatively high errors have combined error rates under 6 percent, which in 2002 would have qualified them for bonuses for exceptional performance.

SNAP Errors Continuing to Fall, New Figures Show

July 3, 2014 at 9:00 am

The SNAP (food stamp) overpayment rate — the share of benefit dollars issued to ineligible households or eligible households in excessive amounts — fell for the seventh straight year in 2013 to 2.61 percent, our new report explains.  That’s the lowest on record.  Less than 1 percent of SNAP benefits go to ineligible households.

The underpayment rate fell to 0.6 percent in 2013, also a record (see graph).  The combined payment error rate — the sum of the overpayment and underpayment rates — fell to 3.2 percent.

As our preview of these new Agriculture Department figures explained, some critics present the combined error rate as a measure of excessive federal SNAP spending due to errors.  That’s incorrect:  the combined error rate includes both overpayments and underpayments.  If you subtract underpayments from overpayments, the government’s net loss from errors was about 2 percent of benefits last year.

SNAP has long had one of the most rigorous systems of any public benefit program to ensure payment accuracy, and the steady improvement in SNAP payment accuracy reflects actions by both the federal government and the states (which administer SNAP) to simplify program administration and improve efficiency.  Federal SNAP rules, revised in 2002, penalize states with persistently high error rates while rewarding states that make SNAP more accessible to eligible families.  The system has produced solid benefits:  even as SNAP achieved record-low error rates, SNAP participation among eligible people rose.

What to Look for in the Upcoming SNAP Figures

June 26, 2014 at 2:07 pm

The Agriculture Department (USDA) will issue data in the next few days on how well states delivered SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits to the right households and in the right amounts last year, and here’s the first thing to keep in mind:  SNAP errors have fallen considerably in recent years, reaching all-time lows; 99 percent of SNAP benefits were issued to eligible households in 2012, for example.

The 2013 figures probably won’t be very different, but they deserve close attention given SNAP’s size and importance, so here’s a brief explanation of what to look for.

USDA issues three SNAP payment error rates for each state:

  • The overpayment error rate counts benefits issued to ineligible households or to eligible households in excess of what program rules direct.
  • The underpayment error rate measures errors in which eligible, participating households received smaller benefits than program rules direct.
  • The combined payment error rate is the sum — not the net — of the overpayment and underpayment error rates.

That last point is key.  In the past, some critics have presented the combined error rate as a measure of excessive federal SNAP spending due to errors.  This is incorrect:  the combined error rate includes both overpayments, which cost the federal government money, and underpayments, which save money.

For example, overpayments represented 2.77 percent of total payments in 2012, while underpayments were 0.65 percent (see chart), for a net loss due to errors of only 2.12 percent of program costs.  And even the 2.12 percent figure overstates the federal cost of SNAP errors, since it doesn’t account for the benefits that eligible households didn’t collect due to improper denials and terminations.

It’s also worth noting that an overpayment is counted in a state’s error rate whether or not the overpaid benefits are collected back from households.  In fiscal year 2012, states collected over $200 million in overissued benefits.

Ryan’s SNAP Cuts Would Hit Millions of Low-Income Americans

April 7, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Millions of people would lose part or all of their SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits under the new budget from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, our new report shows.

The Ryan budget cuts SNAP by $137 billion over ten years (2015-2024).  It includes every major benefit cut in the House-passed version of the farm bill from last year that Congress ultimately rejected.  On top of these cuts, which total $12 billion over 2015-2018 and would end food assistance for 3.8 million people, it converts SNAP into a block grant beginning in 2019 and cuts it by another $125 billion — almost 30 percent — over 2019-2024.

Since 90 percent of SNAP spending goes to food assistance, a cut of that size would require restricting SNAP eligibility for needy people, slashing benefits, or both.

  • If the cuts came solely from restricting eligibility, states would have to cut an average of 10 million people from the program (compared to SNAP enrollment without the cuts) each year between 2019 and 2024.
  • If the cuts came solely from across-the-board benefit cuts, states would have to cut SNAP benefits by more than $40 per person per month over 2019-2024 (in nominal dollars), or almost 30 percent, on average.

Chairman Ryan justifies his deep SNAP cuts in part by claiming that the “explosive growth [of SNAP and other low-income programs] is threatening the overall strength of the safety net.”  While SNAP spending grew substantially during the recession, it has begun to decline as a share of the economy and is expected to continue shrinking over the coming decade as the economy continues to recover and fewer people need SNAP.

Chairman Ryan also implies that SNAP doesn’t encourage recipients to work.  Yet the large majority of SNAP recipients who can work do work:  among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP.  The rates are even higher for families with children:  more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year.

Finally, Chairman Ryan charges that SNAP is rife with waste, fraud, and abuse.  The reality is that SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program and a very low error rate.  Despite the recent growth in caseloads, the share of total SNAP payments that represent overpayments or payments to ineligible households fell to a record low of 2.77 percent in fiscal year 2012.

It’s important to remember that SNAP serves very vulnerable people.  Eighty-three percent of SNAP households have incomes below the poverty line (about $19,800 for a family of three); 42 percent have incomes below half the poverty line (see chart).  Also, millions of low-wage workers rely on SNAP to feed their families.

SNAP cuts of the size that Chairman Ryan proposes would almost certainly mean more hunger and more poverty.

More Evidence That SNAP Caseloads Have Started Falling

March 10, 2014 at 4:45 pm

A million fewer people received SNAP (formerly food stamps) last December than in December 2012, the Agriculture Department announced Friday — the fourth straight month in which participation fell from the previous year.  This is just the latest sign that SNAP, which critics claim is out of control, has begun to shrink as the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession.

SNAP caseloads grew in the recession for two main reasons.  More people qualified for the program (due to the weak economy) and a larger share of eligible people applied (due in part to state initiatives to reach more eligible households — particularly working families and senior citizens — by simplifying SNAP policies and procedures).

As our report explains, SNAP caseloads expanded rapidly when the recession hit, but growth slowed in 2011 and 2012 and has begun to decline (see graph).  This flattening of participation follows the pattern of previous recessions.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects that, as the economy improves, the number of participants will fall by 2 to 5 percent each year over the next decade.

SNAP spending, which doubled as a share of the economy (gross domestic product or GDP) in the wake of the Great Recession, has also begun to decline.  SNAP fell slightly as a share of GDP in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.  CBPP projects it will fall further in 2014 — not only as a share of GDP but even in nominal (non-inflation-adjusted) terms — largely because of last November’s expiration of the temporary benefit increase in the 2009 Recovery Act.