Missouri received $14 million in food stamp bonuses on faulty figures

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 | 6:27 p.m. CST; updated 1:39 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 16, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY —  Missouri received more than $14 million in bonuses based on faulty food stamp figures submitted to the federal government.

The state Department of Social Services said Tuesday that it got federal bonuses in each of the past six years because of Missouri's high participation rates in the food stamp program.

But those payments could now be in question. The agency acknowledged Monday that a computer programming error inflated the numbers reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Federal officials have been alerted to the problem.

The Missouri State Auditors said its office has asked questions about the multi-million dollar payments received by the state based off inflated food stamp numbers. Now the auditors are waiting for answers before determining their next step, spokeswoman Allison Bruns said.

Monday afternoon, the Agriculture Department received word from the Missouri Social Services Department that it had been incorrectly reporting the number of Missourians on food stamps since September 2002.

Agriculture Department spokesman Hans Billger said the department is reviewing the information.

In the seven-year span since the computer glitch began, more than 260,000 people were reported as receiving food stamps when they actually were not. For example, in September of this year, the department announced more than 1 million people were on food stamps, when there were only 855,000.

The errors generally occurred when one of several food stamp participants in a household left and no longer received benefits. But the person was counted by the computer as if he or she remained in the home.

State Rep. David Sater, R-Cassville, who is the chair of the Appropriations Committee on Health, Mental Health and Social Services, called the glitch a "kind of a wake-up call," for departments to analyze and audit themselves.

Overall, he said it was a minor glitch, and the problem has already been "taken care of."

Social Services Department spokesman Scott Rowson said the glitch was initially overlooked because the numbers were relatively small. Eventually, the number became very large and the discrepancy was discovered after a data inquiry last week.

Most importantly, Rowson said, the inactive participants counted as receiving food stamps were not actually receiving any of the benefits.

He said a "fix" has already been put into place and the department is generating participation reports.

One problem that has arisen from the inflated numbers involves bonuses received from the federal government for having served so many people with food stamps.

Since 2003, Missouri has received more than $14 million in bonuses with $2.6 million received this year alone.

Whether Missouri will be liable for damages "remains to be seen," Rowson said.

He said payments will depend on the Agriculture Department.

Sater said he doesn't know whether the audit into food stamps will extend to any other federally funded program. He said Missouri should "analyze every program very diligently for accuracy."

Rowson said he does not think any other program is in jeopardy because he is "pretty confident this was a one-time error."


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