Human Services and Our Obsession with Fraud

Sometimes it seems as if all we care about in delivering benefits is making sure the wrong people don’t get them. There are more important things to worry about.
by | May 31, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

The crucial question to ask about any government program is always: What is the public-policy objective? Why should we spend tax dollars to do this, and what evidence and criteria we will use to decide whether we're getting the job done? What would "good" look like?

What, for example, is the public-policy objective of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program? If the objective of the SNAP, still widely known as food stamps, is to assure that absolutely no one receives benefits who should not, then the only way to do that is to eliminate the program. I'm not advocating that, but it's not possible to run a program that serves more than 46 million people with an error rate of zero.

Obviously, some balance has to be struck between program integrity and accomplishing the mission of the program. It seems to me that the administration of SNAP now is wildly out of balance — tilted much too far toward making sure that no one receives benefits to which they are not entitled. At some point, we're going to be spending a lot more than a dollar of administrative cost to eliminate a dollar misdirected to an ineligible recipient.

Larry Goolsby, director of strategic initiatives with the American Public Human Services Association, agrees that we're conflicted about what we want from programs like SNAP. The purpose of the program is to assure that folks living in low-income households have enough to eat, but most of the public discussion is about fraud and keeping ineligible people off the benefit rolls.

Our confusion about whether a program like SNAP is doing a good job has put frontline human-services staff in state and local government in a real pressure cooker, and the pressure is increasing. The eligibility rules are necessarily complex, while the circumstances of individual households vary greatly. The recession has greatly increased the number of people living in poverty, and thus brought an enormous surge in the number of people eligible for and receiving benefits. In the 2011 fiscal year, $75.6 billion in food-stamp benefits were distributed, with an average benefit per recipient of about $133 a month. As of last October, 46,224,722 Americans were receiving food stamps.

Want to talk about a real-life example of a government program doing more with less? In each of the last few years, SNAP has set a new record low in its error rate, which now stands at less than 4 percent. Meanwhile, administrative costs have fallen from about 20 percent of the program's budget to only about 11 percent. And this has occurred while the caseload has grown by as much as 50 percent over the last three years.

But SNAP is just one part of our human-services system, a system that Goolsby and his colleagues believe is unsustainable — too fragmented, too focused on process and too inefficient to deliver the outcomes we all seek. What is needed is for these programs to be part of a system focused on outcomes that include gainful employment and independence; stronger and healthier families, adults and communities; and the sustained well-being of our young people.

That sounds right to me. But we can't have it both ways. We're going to have to decide whether we are willing to allow a few ineligibles to slip through the system as part of the price of assuring that more than 20 million low-income children have enough to eat. Feeding the kids looks like a bargain to me.