WASHINGTON — The nation’s struggling economy and an uptick in major natural disasters have prompted more Americans than ever to apply for federal food aid.
More than 46.3 million people received a total of $75.3 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, in fiscal 2011, according to U.S. Agriculture Department statistics released Monday. Officials said participation spiked after residents in a dozen states hit by Hurricane Irene applied for assistance in late August and September.
Food-stamp rolls jumped almost 8 percent, and the program distributed $7 billion in additional funds from the previous year. More than half of food-stamp recipients are children, the USDA said.
In response to the program’s growth, and as part of a government-wide effort to crack down on wasteful spending, the Obama administration said Tuesday that it is developing new safeguards to reduce food-stamp mismanagement and fraud.
Only 4 percent of food-stamp payments made last year involved recipients getting paid either too much or too little of their monthly allowance, officials said, noting that error rates have dropped considerably since the 1990s now that most payments are made electronically.
“We’re not satisfied with even this level of accuracy, as any level of improper payment is too much,” Undersecretary of Agriculture Kevin Concannon told reporters Tuesday.
The department and its state partners are developing new penalties to punish food-stamp “traffickers” who either steal benefits or misuse them to earn cash payments. Trafficking can account for as much as 1 percent, or $753 million, of all payments, Concannon said.
In some cases, smaller retailers fraudulently obtain PIN or card numbers from recipients and keep the funds without their knowledge. In the past decade, USDA has disqualified more than 8,300 retailers for such fraud, officials said.
In limited cases, some recipients in states that offer cash deposits for bottles use food stamps to buy beverages, dump the liquids and collect the cash. Others attempt to sell SNAP benefits in exchange for cash on Craigslist and social-media sites.
In another change, officials said the USDA plans to provide state officials with guidance on how to investigate potential cases of fraud among families that request replacement food-stamp cards five or more times a year. Although USDA officials said many requests for new cards are legitimate, current policy bars state officials from asking participants why they need a new card, making it difficult to track misuse.
In fiscal 2010, the USDA said, state governments conducted more than 847,000 investigations that led to the disqualification of 44,483 individuals, while federal investigators with the Food and Nutrition Service conducted nearly 5,000 undercover investigations last year.