MONTPELIER — Chronic errors in payments to beneficiaries of its food-buying assistance program have landed the state in hot water with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has handed down hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties.
Top anti-hunger advocates say the federal sanctions are doing little to correct accounting problems that in some cases have led to the wrongful denial of benefits to hungry Vermont families. And action continues to be slow in coming, according to anti-hunger officials, despite persistent pleas from caseworkers decrying the effects on their low-income clients.
The errors come most often in the form of overpayments to recipients of the program, extra money they’re forced to repay once uncovered by state audits or other reviews. A smaller percentage of beneficiaries are getting less than they are eligible to receive, and others are cut off from the program altogether, even though their incomes qualify them for assistance.
“This is a great program, and we know the state is working on these problems,” said John Sayles, chief executive officer at the Vermont Foodbank. “But we need a bigger sense of urgency in the governor’s office and in the Legislature to make the changes that need to happen so that our neighbors are eating.”
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps and now named 3SquaresVT, supplies cash benefits to more than 100,000 lower-income Vermonters. While the program is administered by the state Department for Children and Families, the benefits are funded by the federal government, and state operations are monitored by the USDA.
In June, the state got word that it had exceeded the federal government’s maximum allowable “payment error rate” for the second year running. Failure to meet the benchmarks has now cost DCF more than $400,000 in penalties over the past two federal fiscal years. And hunger advocates say the state is on pace to suffer its highest payment error rate in history for the federal fiscal year set to conclude at the end of this month.
“There really doesn’t seem to be a short-term strategy on the part of the state to address this,” Sayles said. “So we’re really concerned about not only there being errors in the payments made … but the difficulties people are having just getting access to the system.”