By Leah Douglas
(Reuters) - U.S. states must address unprecedented levels of delay and error in getting federal food aid to recipients, the Department of Agriculture said in letters sent to governors on Thursday.
More than 42 million low-income Americans receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest U.S. anti-hunger program, whose administration by states is part-funded by USDA.
The COVID-19 pandemic and food price inflation increased SNAP enrollment in recent years and states are struggling to support higher case loads, said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Nutrition Stacy Dean in an interview with Reuters.
Consequently, some recipients are taking months to be approved for benefits or receiving the wrong amount, Dean said, adding: "This can create terrible stress for families."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday sent letters to the governors of 44 states and the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands urging them to reduce error rates and improve timeliness.
"People should not lose access to food because States are unable to review their applications in a timely fashion," said the letters, seen by Reuters.
Six states did not receive letters because they are performing well, Dean said.
In fiscal year 2022, 11.5% of SNAP benefits had over- or under-payment errors, according to USDA data.
States have managed high case loads before, not least during the Great Recession, without significant issues, Dean said:
"We haven't seen this kind of problem in the program, it’s unprecedented."
USDA matches states' costs for administering SNAP. If that administration does not improve, there can be a fiscal penalty, Dean said.
SNAP is funded by the farm bill, a legislative package passed every five years. The last one expired in September but was extended for one year in November's spending deal.
(Reporting by Leah Douglas; Editing by Kevin Liffey)