Food stamps recipients lose as bill fails

During testimony, state officials explained how the federal government calculates the amount food stamp recipients must pay back on the House Human Service Committee room's white board.

During testimony, state officials explained how the federal government calculates the amount food stamp recipients must pay back on the House Human Service Committee room’s white board.

Some low-income Vermonters will still be forced to repay the federal government for state errors with the food stamp program, after a bill asking the state to pick up that tab failed this session.

The problem dates back to last year, when the feds sanctioned Vermont for miscalculating the amount of money it awarded to food stamp recipients, in many cases giving people too much.

The federal government, which pays for food stamps, fined the state $500,000 and asked those Vermonters who were victims of the errors to pay back the extra.

Some lawmakers, however, felt those low-income residents should not be asked to pay for an error that was not their fault.

The House this year tried to pass a bill that would require the state to repay the feds, rather than the food stamp recipients themselves, but the bill failed, infuriating legislators who spent weeks crafting it.

“The vast majority of Vermonters who rely on 3SquaresVT are children, elders and people with disability,” said Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington. “They’re not squirreling away their food stamps.”

Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, chair of the House Committee on Human Services. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, chair of the House Committee on Human Services. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

Pugh’s committee, House Human Services, approved the bill, but it stalled in the House Appropriations Committee for several reasons.

First was the cost. It would have cost between $300,000 and $650,000, lawmakers said, to repay the government. Second, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration opposed the bill, saying it would set a bad precedent.

“If Social Security makes a mistake, or the IRS, they don’t let you keep it. This is in keeping with federal government programs,” said David Yacovone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, which administers food stamps.

“I think it’s precedent-setting, and I think in the scheme of all of the challenges we have, I’d rather spend state resources helping people in other ways,” Yacovone said.

Meanwhile, the administration did succeed in securing several fixes to the repayment plan from the federal government, independent of the bill (H.620).

The federal government agreed to cut in half the amount recipients are paying back. And people who owe less than $600 no longer have to pay the money back at all. Previously that threshold was $400.

During testimony about the bill before Pugh’s committee, DCF provided data about error rates and what the department is doing to fix them. While calculations are far from complete, the error rate this year (fiscal year 2014) appears to be around 4 percent, according to DCF. Federal penalties kick in when the rate exceeds 6 percent.

The amount of extra food stamp benefits, known in Vermont as 3SquaresVT, was an average of $1,095 in fiscal year 2011 and $983 in FY12, according to DCF. There were 175 errors in FY11, up from 85 the year before.

Overall, the number of people on food stamps in Vermont has grown from 19,928 in fiscal year 2000 to 48,000 in fiscal year 2012, according to DCF.

There have been errors in the past, too, though not to the same degree. In the early 2000s errors amounted to around $50,000 per year, according to DCF. Only in FY11 did that amount spike, to $191,554.

Errors can occur several ways. Sometimes the state does not promptly process a change in circumstances, such as a decrease in someone’s rent that would affect the amount of food stamps benefits they receive.

Advocacy groups for low-income Vermonters pushed hard for the error rates bill to pass.

“Five dollars a month might not sound like much to you or I, but it’s one less gallon of milk per month to a family,” said Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.

The intangible burdens – financial and emotional stress – are much harder to quantify, she said.

“It just knocks them back from getting to the point where they can support themselves,” she said.

Parisi applauded the steps DCF has taken this year to cut down on errors, and for the steps the administration took with the federal government to ease the burden for those in the process of repayment.

DCF began many types of “intensive training” for more than 170 staff members and holds several types of monthly and quarterly meetings to discuss the errors. It also tracks workers’ performance, to identify people who frequently cause errors.

Food stamps workers now have “desk aids” to help them make correct calculations when processing forms. District offices also complete “corrective action plans,” based on errors identified by quality control supervisors.

Laura Krantz

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  • Paul Lorenzini

    Maybe if the hurt was put off for folks of age 60 or something, it would not be so bad, but I see with my own eyes, often, younger folks, that are irresponsible, taking whatever they can get, and for those people, I say, TOUGH!

  • Roger Sposta

    In spite of what Paul may think, I suspect that the people who got more than they should have, had no idea they did. They are at the mercy of overworked and undertrained DCF workers.

  • David Black

    If a Vermont DCF employee made the error, the state employee(s) should be responsible, accountable and fireable.

  • Bryan Bouchard

    To many wrong things coming out of DCF. There needs to be a change!

  • Dan Luneau

    It appears to me that the State has gone to bat and successfully lowered the amount owed. The DFC has taken steps to reduce the errors which hopefully will keep us under the six percent error target in the future. That all said, I am not comfortable going after the folks who can afford it the least for money we all know they do not have. We find money for just about any cause and to me this is as good a cause that I have read about lately. So in the end some folks go to bed with less to eat, is this want we want?

  • The attitude of those who voted against this is really sad, as is the judgmental attitude of the first to comment. This is a big deal to those struggling on food stamps. Underlying the attitudes expressed though are probably the beliefs that anyone “who really wants” can get a job. Also a myth, and even the jobs that do exist are minimum wage (or less in the service industry where tips can legally be counted) with no benefits. However, what is really disturbing is the assumption that the State can screw up, over time, and that the recipient is then responsible. The amount that was received each month was small, and was probably just assumed to be a minor increase for whatever reason. Subtracting this amount from future payments will be noticed – not only is the “increase” gone so is an extra amount. $5.00? It will have the impact of double that. The State should be ashamed, and those who voted against it, even more so. A list please, so that we can know who to remove from our “re-elect” lists.

    • Deb Tyson

      I agree with Pam, we need names . They need to be removed . We can no longer accept this kind of politics.

  • Deb Tyson

    Since when does VT follow in the footsteps of the Feds or others? GMO labeling, for example or the Pot bill for another! Since when do we hurt people who without fault of there own are put in this poistion? Since when did we stop caring about those less fortunate? This will hurt children and the elderly, and this is not acceptable as a Vermonter, period! Nor is this our ways. That old saying , its time to take VT back , stands stronger than ever, we need to remove these politicians who clearly do not understand what VT is about. This is totally disgusting that we would hurt the innocent to rectify a mistake made by others.

  • Ann Raynolds

    Roger is right. The little amount families get in food stamps to begin with would not make anyone wonder why for a few months they seemed to be getting more. While I have long argued that food stamps should not covert some of the things they do — like sodas and proceesed packaged foods — the fact remains that a family or a person simply cannot survive only on food stamps. We MUST feed people! At the very least, people in this country, in this state must not go hungry. Let us work in Vermont to make sure this does not happen. Marissa Parisi and the organization she directs, Hunger Free Vermont, are doing their best — let’s see how we all can help them!

  • Dave Bellini

    “The House this year tried to pass a bill that would require the state to repay the feds, rather than the food stamp recipients…”
    “…Shumlin’s administration opposed the bill…”
    The poor and the elderly have to pay for the incompetence of this administration. It’s more important to the Governor that he protect his friends in patronage jobs. This administration accepts no responsibility and they are not accountable for failure.
    And Vermonters should vote for them again…WHY..???

    • Timothy D. MacLam

      The legislature could appropriate money to defend the state against lawsuits which might result from the GMO labeling law, but not for those in need! What is more important?

      It is past time for $humlin to go, and some key legislators need the boot as well.

      • Sen. David Zuckerman

        I do think that we should have found the money for this issue. However, just to clarify, there is no money appropriated in this years budget for the GMO bill. It is only if there is waterfall money and there is also direction to seek money in the next fiscal year budget for the GMO bill. So the two issues are not related. I offer this as a clarification, not to defend the unfortunate action that we did not include budget money for this issue either.

        • David Dempsey

          Atty Gen Sorrell said that money received from lawsuit settlements will pay for some of the GMO lawsuits cost. No matter how you look at it, that is taxpayer money, money that could be spent on more critical needs of the state. I feel that by opposing the legislation, the Shumlin administration is saying that the governors political appointees, such as David Yacavone, have done a good job administering these programs and are not at fault for these errors. I think that if they are really doing a good job, the number of errors found would have gone down before the being notified of the fines, not after. Mistakes happen, but the incompetance of leadership is unacceptable.

  • Wendy wilton

    This is a horrible scandal. Shame on the Shumlin Administration for failing to implement a federal program correctly and then asking the poor to pick up the tab! Maybe millionaire Pete ought to loosen up some of his $10 million to cover the program errors?

    If the state would institute a photo ID on the EBT card (food stamps) we might cut back on misuse enough to provide more aid to those who really need it and not have to reduce the benefit?

    • The issue is not “misuse”, the issue is stupidity in administering the program and then blaming the victims. The solution you offer is one more way to pick on the poor and assume that fraud is standing operating procedure! It isn’t.

      • Jacob Miller

        At least Ms. Wilton didn’t throw out the canard of people using food stamps to purchase steak and lobster, Pam.

        Nor did she advocate for a return to “poor farms” – aka: “local control”.

        At least not yet, however the campaign season is just beginning.

    • rosemarie jackowski

      Wendy… I respectfully ask: What misuse?

      Are you talking about the lady who drives to the ‘welfare office’ in her Cadillac to pick up her check – and then spends all the money on beer and cigarettes while her kids go hungry?

      Old myths never die.

  • Ralph Colin

    Where does the buck stop for screw-ups by the State government? Right at the top!
    The governor appointed the executives who made the mistakes, many of them being his friends.

    The victims should not be held responsible. The State should cover for its errors which, of course, means that we all pay.

    Doesn’t anyone ever get fed up with the Shumlin administration?

  • Dave Bellini

    The Governor and legislative leaders would RAPIDLY change their position and find the money necessary if his base supporters demanded it. If this were a contested election these folks on food stamps wouldn’t be paying for the state’s errors.

  • Elizabeth M. Champagne

    Shummy’s sliding down the slippery slope, and as sledders know, the sled tends to pick up speed as it goes on.
    The governor who let Green Mountain Power throw his inaugural ball has presided over that utility’s merger with CVPS, leaving most Vermonters dependent on Gaz Metro of Canada. He then fast-forwarded the process for GMP to destroy the Lowell Mountain watershed with a massive industrial installation that will be junk in 25 years. Next, the governor who sought to take the Earned Income Credit from poor Vermonters to cover the cost of early education for their kids went and “helped out” his needy neighbor in East Montpelier—though after the news broke about that self-serving deal, he reversed course.
    And now, as an aspiring one-percenter, Shumlin tells those food-stamp recipients they can spin grass into gold: The State of Vermont will not acknowledge its responsbility here.
    If state policy must be ” Let them eat weeds,” then how about providing a guide to the most nutritious wild greens, along with permits to take moose and deer in spring, and advice on how to avoid getting Lyme disease while out hunting and foraging!
    There’s one thing we can count on from the Shumlin administration: There shall be NO NEW TAXES on the state’s wealthiest residents.
    Where is Dick Snelling when we need him?

    • Matt Taylor

      The people that received too much in food stamps are merely being required to pay back the EXTRA that they received. Nothing is being taken from them.

      It is interesting what is considered wealthy in this state. The “wealthy” in this state are already heavily taxed and pay a lot more than the low income people. The only wealthy that pay less are the 1% that can afford to hire a lot of CPAs to find loop holes.

      • Doug Hoffer

        Actually, that is a common misperception. When you look at the only measure that counts (taxes paid as a percentage of income), the top 1% pays less than all other Vermonters.

        See page 116 of this excellent report.

  • Jason Farrell

    “Where is Dick Snelling when we need him?”

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