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Editorial: Food Stamp Mistakes; Others Pay for Vt. Agency’s Errors

The Department for Children and Families, the state agency responsible for distributing federal food stamp benefits to Vermont residents, has not been serving those needy families — or taxpayers — particularly well. The federal government has levied nearly $500,000 in penalties against the agency after audits disclosed a high error rate in the amount paid out to beneficiaries, and advocates for the hungry say its application process is so riddled with problems that it is more of an obstacle than a gateway to assistance.

David Yacovone, the department’s commissioner, attributes the problems to budget cuts made when Jim Douglas was governor. At a time when demand for food assistance was spiking because of the recession and more generous federal eligibility rules, the Douglas administration cut money for training as part of the Challenges for Change legislation passed in 2010, he said.

“I’m not pointing fingers, but when people cut positions ... well, those people are working hard, and there are consequences when that happens,” Yacovone told Peter Hirschfeld of the Vermont Press Bureau.

Well, we’re not pointing fingers either, but Yacovone seems much too willing to minimize his own responsibility. The commissioner’s explanation for his department’s problems certainly provides context for its challenges — and perhaps explains why the Legislature earlier this year approved spending $180,000 to hire three new workers. But agency heads are supposed to make adjustments to deal with all sorts of challenges, including reduced budgets. Only one state performed worse than Vermont in 2011 when the federal government calculated the frequency of errors made in determining benefits: Is it likely that none of the agencies responsible for distributing benefits in the other 48 states were also coping with reduced budgets?

As it turns out, 2011 was not an isolated example. After the federal government fined the state $341,000 for its high error rate in 2011, it hit the state with a $135,000 penalty for the frequency of mistakes in fiscal year 2012.

But it’s not clear the message is getting through: In discussing the fact that 212 households received $206,000 in overpayments in fiscal year 2012, Yacovone was quick to note those overpayments accounted for only a small fraction of the $148 million distributed via the 3SquaresVT program, as Vermont’s food aid program is known. That tolerance for mistakes perhaps explains why the agency’s error rate for fiscal year 2013 may prove to be the worst yet, according to Hunger Free Vermont, an advocacy group for nutritional assistance that has heard numerous complaints about slipshod procedures during the application process.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the situation is who gets stuck paying the price for the department’s failures. Most of the mistakes that contributed to the department’s high error rate involved awarding too much in benefits to families. When audits discovered those errors, the Department for Children and Families then required those families to pay back the benefits — even though recipients had no idea they were being overpaid. One can only imagine the hardship that creates for a family already struggling financially.

Yet Yacovone dismisses the suggestion — advanced by Hunger Free Vermont and the Vermont Foodbank — that the state stop forcing food stamp recipients to pay for its own mistakes by assuming responsibility for reimbursing the federal government for overpayments. No other state “gives people a free pass on that,” he told Hirschfeld.

Not punishing people for mistakes they’re not responsible for qualifies as a “free pass”? Perhaps making the state assume responsibility for its own mistakes may be the only way of, well ... making it assume responsibility for its own mistakes.