SNAP error rates went up last year, but it wasn’t due to fraud

[Image Source: Flickr / U.S. Department of Agriculture]

For many years, anti-hunger advocates have pointed to the low error rates of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as evidence of its efficiency and effectiveness. And that is true – SNAP does have a very low rate of improper payments and it is an effective program that helps millions of American families, including thousands of Oklahomans, put food on the table.

What is the SNAP error rate?

The SNAP benefit payment error rate measures two things.  First, it measures the percentage of overpayments, which occur when eligible families are paid more than they should be paid in benefits.  It also captures underpayments, which are instances in which families are paid less than they should be.  These two measures combined tell us what percentage of SNAP payments were errors (either because the payment was too much or too little). Payment errors are not evidence of fraud or of individuals who are not really eligible for SNAP taking advantage of the program. 

Payment errors usually occur due to simple human error: numbers are entered in the wrong order, the handwriting on a form is misread, or incorrect information is entered by mistake.  The majority of these mistakes (60 percent) are made by administrators and are corrected when they are discovered. Over-payments must be paid back and under-payments are reimbursed. 

Why did the error rate go up last year?

Last month, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the 2017 error rate for SNAP – putting that number at 6.3 percent. That’s is higher than the 3.66 percent error rate that was reported in 2014, the last year the national rate was reported. The increase is probably not due to a real increase in payment errors, but rather because USDA is measuring error differently, and more accurately, now than it used to. And that’s a good thing.  Having an accurate picture of when and why errors are occurring allows us to fix them, and to prevent them in the future.

In 2014, USDA began to discover that there may be some issues with the system for states reporting their payment errors.  In some cases, states were simply unintentionally making mistakes because they were misinterpreting directions, or receiving inconsistent guidance from the USDA. This resulted in underreporting of payment errors in many states. 

In 2015, a whistle blower revealed that, in a very small group of states, the underreporting was intentional. At the time, USDA offered bonuses to states that lowered their error rates and penalized them if their error rates increased. A small group of states, not including Oklahoma, were manipulating their error rates to make them lower, so they could avoid penalties and qualify for bonuses. These states hired an outside consulting firm to help them lower their error rates, and the firm recommended that the states use questionable practices – such as encouraging beneficiaries to refuse to cooperate with requests for information – to prevent individual cases being reported as confirmed errors. As a result, states were reporting error rates that were inaccurately low.

Due to this accidental and intentional misreporting, USDA temporarily stopped reporting the error rate and established new procedures to correct the under-reporting. Given these corrections, it shouldn’t be surprising that the new error rate is higher than it was.  And considering the inaccurate reporting that was happening before 2015, the higher error rate probably doesn’t mean that there’s actually more payment error happening. It just means we’re correctly measuring it now. And since we have a better, more accurate measurement now, we can take steps to actually reduce payment errors.

SNAP works, and it should be protected

SNAP is a very effective anti-hunger program, and the increase in payment error should not be used as an excuse to cut or dismantle the program.  Payment error isn’t fraud. It’s simple human error and can easily be corrected when discovered.  Policymakers should focus on how to make SNAP stronger and more effective for American families – not on placing onerous new obstacles on families just trying to get by.


Courtney Cullison worked for OK Policy from 2017 to 2020 as a policy analyst focused on issues of economic opportunity and financial security. Before coming to OK Policy, Courtney worked in higher education, holding faculty positions at the University of Texas at Tyler and at Connors State College in eastern Oklahoma. A native Oklahoman, she received an Honors B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. with emphasis in congressional politics and public policy from the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Courtney was a fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. As a professor she taught classes in American politics, public policy, and research methods and conducted original research with a focus on the relationship between representatives and the constituents they serve.

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