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Hastings Law Journal

Authors

Ed Bolen

Abstract

This Note examines how the Food Stamp Program's quality control system has contributed to an unprecedented drop in the number of households receiving food stamps. Since the only practical measure of the program's effectiveness is the rate of error in distributing benefits, state administrators face tremendous pressure, in the form of fiscal sanctions from the federal government, to reduce errors. That emphasis has resulted in state policies designed to eliminate errors, but these state policies have had a harmful side-effect in discouraging, if not preventing, otherwise eligible households from participating in the program. This is due, in part, to the changing composition of households seeking food stamps. In particular, more eligible households are working at least part-time, yet remain poor enough to be eligible for food stamps. These households have complicated income characteristics that are a fertile source of administrative error. The states that have begun requiring households with earned income to recertify for the program more frequently have seen participation among these households decline notably. A number of similar state policy responses have resulted in a quality control system that favors the government interest in payment accuracy at the cost of unfairly burdening those participating and potentially eligible for the program. While merely adjusting the sanction policy would provide relief to states with high error rates, a more substantial overhaul of the measures used to monitor the Food Stamp Program would provide a more useful assessment of state performance and remove unnecessary barriers to participation.

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