Empire Justice Comments on the Request for Information on SNAP High Performance Bonuses

Empire Justice July 21, 2014

Mr. Patrick Lucrezio
Program Accountability and Administration Division
Food and Nutrition Service
3101 Park Center Drive, Room 810
Alexandria, VA  22302

RE: Comments on the Request for Information on SNAP High Performance Bonuses

Dear Mr. Lucrezio,

I am writing on behalf of Empire Justice Center, a statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income New York State families live.

Although we are not a state agency or an organization which represents state interests, we ask that you consider these written comments on the Request for Information on SNAP High Performances Bonuses (Federal Register, Vol. 79, No. 79, April 24, 2014, p. 22788).  Empire Justice has a long history of working collaboratively with our state agency (the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance) and other anti-hunger partners to improve client access.  We have amassed considerable knowledge of state and local operations through these collaborations, as well as through our class action litigation on SNAP access issues.  We recognize that the quality control and performance bonus systems drive important decisions on the state level.

Empire Justice believes that the existing performance bonus structure, in effect since the 2002 Farm Bill, has worked well and should not be substantially changed.

We do support linking the existing bonuses, so that states performing exceptionally well on one measure would have to meet a minimum standard of performance in other categories.

However, we strongly oppose the creation of performance bonuses in these categories: employment and training, nutrition education, and recipient integrity.  We recognize that these are all important areas, but they are not related to SNAP’s core functions, and FNS has other methods of monitoring and creating incentives for strong performance in each area.  Additionally, adding new categories would dilute funding for the existing bonuses, as appropriate data to measure performance in these new areas through the quality control system is not available now and is unlikely to be available in the foreseeable future.

We are gravely concerned that the data that is available would potentially result in undesirable outcomes and unintended consequences, especially in the area of recipient integrity.  Presumably a recipient integrity category would somehow be linked to recipient disqualifications and claim recoveries, and would provide additional incentives for states to beef up their fraud detection and recovery efforts.

Here in New York, there are ongoing, rampant due process violations in the fraud investigations/disqualification process.  Many counties are extremely aggressive in pursuing fraud, yet it appears that the fraud and/or SNAP staff do not seem to understand SNAP eligibility rules.   Offices pursue IPVs or criminal prosecutions in cases where there is either inadvertent client error or no violation of SNAP rules at all.  For example, simplified reporters are disqualified for not reporting changes within 10 days, or for not reporting receipt of a lump sum or a household move.  Counties inappropriately mix the criminal and civil disqualification processes (One locality uses disqualification consent agreements – meant to be used in cases of deferred adjudication – after the district attorney has declined to accept the case for criminal prosecution.)  Individuals get notices threatening to terminate their SNAP benefits if they don’t show up for a fraud investigation interview.  Clients with mental illness and cognitive disabilities, and individuals with limited English proficiency, are being inappropriately thrown off the program, and face severe hardship as a result of the loss of food assistance.  At a May 2014 workshop I attended on older adults and SNAP, outreach workers raised that senior citizens in their communities are afraid to apply for SNAP because they are worried about “seeing their name in the newspaper” (being arrested) if they don’t fill out the application correctly.  Adding a recipient integrity bonus would only exacerbate these very serious problems.

We strongly urge the USDA not to expand the number of bonuses.  Such a move should only be made as part of a legislative proposal that seeks additional resources for high performance bonuses and that expands the debate to a broader conversation about SNAP as an anti-hunger program, for example, by looking at how well the state packages SNAP with other nutrition benefits, such as school meals and WIC, or impacts recipients’ overall health and well-being.