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The District gets whacked for sloppy food-stamp distribution.

Under Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., the District’s food-stamp program was, in the eyes of the federal government, a pocket of efficiency. It provided benefits to only 70 to 90 percent of people eligible for it, but it scrupulously delivered the correct quantity of food stamps to those recipients. Its relatively low error rate won it better scores than state-run operations in Maryland and Virginia.

Then management guru Anthony A. Williams took over and the emphasis of the program changed. Participation rates soared while accuracy in doling out the stamps suffered. This situation drew the feds’ ire.

According to an April letter to the mayor from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food Stamp Program, the USDA is punishing the District for its poor record of accuracy in granting food-stamp benefits by levying more than $600,000 in penalties. (Adding insult to rebuke, the form letter addresses “Governor Williams.”)

USDA sampling concluded that, in nearly one-third of cases last fiscal year in which food-stamp applicants were denied or had their stamps terminated, the office that manages D.C.’s federally funded food-stamp distribution, the Income Maintenance Administration (IMA), couldn’t provide full documentation as to why. The District’s 32.44 percent failure rate was the nation’s worst, far ahead of second-place New York’s 20.7 percent. (Because nearly all of D.C.’s eligible food-stamp recipients actually get them, this figure reflects mostly bad record-keeping, not that people were wrongly denied benefits.)

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The IMA also overpaid some recipients by almost $6 million in food stamps in fiscal 2001, while simultaneously underpaying other qualified recipients by $2 million. The combined rate of over- and underpayment, 11.38 percent, was fourth worst in the country—behind California, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which have far larger and more cumbersome food-stamp operations.

From 1996 to 1998, the last three years of Barry’s reign, D.C.’s food-stamp office scored well with the feds. But starting in fiscal 1999, Williams’ first in office, the agency began to slip. In 1999 and 2000, the District’s error rate was above the national average, and the USDA leveled combined penalties of more than $80,000. This year’s slip-ups triggered a far heavier $600,934 penalty, which the USDA will permit the city to pay off through investments in improving the system.

But running afoul of the USDA’s accuracy standards doesn’t necessarily point to failure. Food-stamp advocates say that there is a trade-off between focusing on making precise food-stamp payouts and reaching out to all people eligible for the benefit. States that emphasize error prevention in food-stamp programs tend to make it harder for even eligible people to get benefits, according to a 2001 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, driving down their participation rates. As a result of such criticisms, this year’s Farm Security and Rural Investment Act eased future punishments on error-prone states.

“There was widespread concern that steps that state program administrators took to keep error rates low had impeded program access, especially for working families,” says Dorothy Rosenbaum, senior policy analyst and co-author of the study.

D.C.’s food-stamp program served an average of 73,500 residents each month last year, with an average monthly disbursement of $80. According to one USDA survey, the District’s participation rate—the share of eligible people who get food stamps—was approximately 100 percent. The national average was only 57 percent.

But increased accessibility alone doesn’t account for the mess.

The unraveling of food-stamp accuracy may also have been linked to a policy change in the last months of the previous administration. According to internal IMA memos, in October 1998 supervisors began to delegate “authority to act” to experienced caseworkers—essentially making them their own supervisors. Over the years, thanks to the city’s financial crisis and short staffing, the supervise-yourself practice spread, says Kate Jesberg, current IMA administrator. By January of this year, one-third of caseworkers signed off on most of their own work.

“I firmly believe that somebody else has to review your work,” says Richard Larson, policy and research director for Maryland’s Family Investment Administration, which runs Maryland’s food-stamp program. “That doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing. But you miss stuff. How do they know that they’re right? Who shall watch the watchers?”

On Feb. 1, the IMA’s deputy administrator for program operations, Sharon Cooper-DeLoatch, revoked caseworkers’ autonomy, citing “[r]ecent Quality Control, Quality Assurance, and Medicaid monitoring findings….This policy will remain in effect until there is notable improvement in the Food Stamp error rate [and the administration of other benefits].”

Supervision may be back, but the benefits office has acute staffing problems. Though there are approximately 350 caseworker jobs in the budget, there are only 250 caseworkers, and high turnover makes the 100 vacancies nearly impossible to fill. The penalty may be a blessing, because it forces spending in areas that will lessen caseloads, increase training, encourage new hires, and clear up the errors. Jesberg is most excited about the rollout of new call centers in which food-stamp clients can simply phone in to report changes in their earnings status, rather than having to file the news in person. Revoking the authority to act, she says, was only a small part of a larger strategy.

“Good customer service, timeliness of payments, making the program accessible—the error rate does not capture those,” says Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center. Vollinger says there’s room in the recent farm bill for eventually rewarding these other factors. “There may be things the District of Columbia may compare favorably on.” CP