Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal
Sunday, July 14, 1996
A LICKING IN FOOD STAMPS
OHIO MAKES MORE ELIGIBILITY ERRORS THAN ANY OTHER MAJOR STATE; SUMMIT WORSE THAN ANY OTHER OHIO COUNTY
BY DAVID KNOX AND ARNIE ROSENBERG
Ohio makes more mistakes determining who is eligible for food stamps than any of the nation's seven largest states, improperly issuing more than $113 million in the stamps in fiscal 1995 alone.
A big reason is Summit County, Ohio's worst performer, with a disbursement error rate in 1995 that was nearly triple the national average. Summit's error rate was nearly twice that of the state's next-worse performer, Mahoning County.
As a consequence of Ohio's poor showing, the federal government is expected to force the state to spend as much as $10 million -- maybe more -- to improve administration of the program.
Ohio will have little choice but to come up with the money. The alternative would be to lose more than $62 million from its share of the federal food stamp pie, the liability Ohio has accumulated over four years of higher-than-average error rates.
"If we just ignored the issues, they would reduce our allocation," said Ron Rhodes, director of communications at the Ohio Department of Human Services. "That is their ultimate stick."
Each month Ohio doles out about $80 million in food stamps to about 1 million people statewide.
But for every $100 worth of stamps distributed, more than $11 is going to people who shouldn't be getting them, while other recipients are being shortchanged by more than $3, according to a federal audit for the 1995 fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Nearly a quarter of Ohio's errors involved people who should have received stamps but didn't.
While the state's combined error rate of 14.57 percent was bad, it looks good compared to Summit County's, where nearly $29 of every $100 worth of stamps was wrongly distributed, according to state figures. Practically all of Summit's mistakes involved stamps being issued to people who had no right tothem. State and county officials caution that the error rates for the counties are less accurate than the statewide numbers because of the smaller number of applications examined in the annual audits. In 1995, only 59 of the 1,068 cases sampled statewide came from Summit County. But Summit has recorded consistently poor error rates for each of the last three years.
Patrick A. McGrath, director of the Summit County Department of Human Services, acknowledged the county has had a worse-than-average error rate.
McGrath blamed most of the problem on lack of money to hire enough caseworkers. "The biggest causal factor is our high caseload."
In 1994, Summit had one caseworker for every 277 households receiving food stamps or other welfare benefits, McGrath said. Today the county is laboring under a 1-to-326 ratio.
Welfare officials recommend no more than 275 households per worker.
The county has 15 caseworker vacancies but no money to fill them, McGrath said.
He said he was counting on the state renewing a $330,000 grant the county received in 1994 to finance several new programs designed to improve the accuracy of food stamp distribution. But the money turned out to be a one-time grant.
Human services funding
Meanwhile, Summit County and state welfare officials have been engaged in a running battle for years over how much county money should go to the local human services department and how much should come from the state and federal governments.
For several years, Summit County has successfully argued that it should be paying less than the state says it should to run the department. This year, the county is spending $3.2 million of its money for the department, which costs more than $20 million a year just to run. The rest comes from state and federal sources.
But county officials say they are reluctant to commit more county money for expenses like hiring caseworkers because they fear the state would contribute less to the department as a result.
"We see much of this (need for caseworkers) as unfunded mandates from the state," said William Hartung, county executive director of administration. "The error rate is a relatively minor factor vs. providing direct services with continually cut (state) funding."
Hartung said the county's principal concern is providing assistance like Aid to Families With Dependent Children "and not going over budget."
Arnold Tompkins, Ohio's director of human services, disagreed with McGrath's contention that Summit's high caseload was the problem.
"There's no correlation" between the caseload and the county's error rate, he said. "Those people aren't dealing with 300 cases a day. People deal with three or four cases a day."
Tompkins said poor management was more to blame than lack of staff.
"The supervisors have to review the workers' work," Tompkins said. "I don't think that's being done enough."
Tompkins said his department is putting more pressure on local officials to improve. "We're really clamping down very very hard now," he said. "We're going to be a little more dictatorial than we have been in the past."
Tompkins said Ohio followed Indiana's example in January by ordering all of its large urban counties to review every food stamp case where recipients work and should have their income deducted from their stamp allotment. Failure to report or accurately record all income is the largest source of errors.
The state paid the cost of that review. At $29 per case, that amounted to more than $129,000 for the 4,463 cases of working recipients examined in Summit County.
Tompkins said it is too early to see results from the program. But, he said, "We think we're seeing some improvements this year."
He argued that tracking money earned by food stamp recipients is more difficult in Ohio because of the state's low unemployment rate and its success in putting welfare recipients to work. "We're being penalized because we are doing such a good job getting people to work," he said.
The $330,000 grant Summit received in 1994 was part of the $4.3 million that Ohio agreed to spend to avoid federal penalties stemming from its high food stamp error rates between 1986 and 1991.
Although federal, state and county officials say they are confident that investment eventually will pay off in fewer mistakes, it hasn't so far.
Ohio's performance has worsened each of the last four years, increasing from a 13.19 percent error rate in 1992 to 14.57 percent in 1995, according to audits conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which finances the food stamp program.
When compared to the other states, Ohio's performance looks even worse: During the same four years, the average error rate for the nation dropped from 11.73 percent to 9.72 percent.
Bill keeps growing
Ohio's below-par performance is translating into a growing bill.
As part of its annual audit, the Agriculture Department calculates a "potential liability" sanction levied on states that post a worse-than-average error rate.
Ohio's tab for 1995 was $24.6 million, the most of any state. The state's accumulated liability for the last four years stands at $62 million, also the highest in the nation.
It's unlikely any of the 20 states with worse-than-average error rates will be forced to pay their full bill. That has never happened, said Diana Pihos, spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department's regional office in Chicago.
Instead, Pihos said, the federal government traditionally negotiates with the states to increase the amount they spend on trying to solve the problems in the food stamp program.
"We've been pretty lenient," Pihos said. "We'd rather see the programs work better."
The last time the federal government settled its accounts with the states was in 1992. The agreement called for each state to spend the equivalent of 15 cents for each dollar owed on improving the program.
For Ohio, that's where the $4.3 million in program-improvement spending came from in 1994.
More to be spent
But Ohio officials expect to spend more this time.
"We will start negotiations with the feds and come up with a dollar amount we are going to reinvest in the program," said Rhodes of the state Human Services Department.
Rhodes said an estimated settlement amount is expected to be in the department's next budget request, due in September.
Rhodes said state officials are assuming the amount will be about the same as the earlier agreement, or about 15 percent of the total $62 million. That's between $8 million and $10 million.
"That sounds like a realistic number," he said. But federal officials say it's too early to say how much Ohio might have to spend.
John Knaus, chief of the Agriculture Department's quality control branch, said the attitude of top state officials is a key to eliminating errors.
"I don't think the improvements can be dictated by Washington," Knaus said. "It takes a fairly authoritative figure somewhere in the bureaucracy of the state saying this is important."
Knaus cited Indiana as a good example.
Indiana, while not one of the seven largest food stamp states, had the worst error rate -- 17.7 percent -- of any state in 1994.
Governor cracks down
Gov. Evan Bayh made it clear in May 1995 that bringing down the error rate was a priority, threatening county directors and supervisors with disciplinary action if rates exceeded national averages.
Bayh implemented a three-pronged plan, including an immediate review of all food stamp cases, state strike teams to conduct additional reviews and the assignment of a state police officer and special counsels to investigate fraud.
Indiana's error rate last year, while still the highest in the nation, had dropped to 16.35 percent, and Knaus of the Agriculture Department expected a further improvement this year. About 392,000 Indiana residents receive food stamps each month, less than half the number of Ohioans.
Jennifer Baxendell, special assistant to Gov. George V. Voinovich for human services issues, said Voinovich is concerned about Ohio's poor performance in administering the food stamp program.
"It is becoming an increasing source of frustration," she said. "We realize the status quo is unacceptable."
Baxendell said Voinovich, who is in Puerto Rico for the summer convention of the nation's governors, has made it clear to county officials that "we will provide any technical assistance and leadership needed."
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