Food for Naught


In fiscal 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued over $22 billion in food stamps. By the department's own reckoning, it paid out $1.7 billion in fraudulent or mistaken claims nationwide. A new General Accounting Office report focuses on one persistent source of error: sending food stamps to the households of prison inmates.

The level of benefits is partly determined by the number of eligible members of a given household; not surprisingly, prisoners are not supposed to be counted. But when the GAO compared food stamp and state prison rolls in Florida, New York, and Texas, and local jail rolls in counties representing four major cities (Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York), it found households in those areas "improperly collected an estimated $3.5 million in food stamp benefits." Extrapolating from that figure, the nationwide overpayment for prisoners could range from $8.75 million to more than $14 million.

Noting that "the participation of ineligible individuals undermines the credibility of the Food Stamp Program," the report stresses that simple computer checks of food stamp lists and prison population data are a cost-effective means of reducing overpayments.