Missouri acknowledged Monday that it reported inflated numbers of food stamp recipients to the federal government, calling into question millions of dollars of bonuses paid to the state for running one of the nation's top-flight programs.
The Department of Social Services said a computer programming error has consistently exaggerated the figures submitted since September 2002.
For example: the agency reported more than 1.1 million food stamp recipients this September. It now says the actual number may be closer to 855,000. The errors generally occurred when one of several food stamp participants in a household left _ and thus no longer was receiving benefits _ but still was counted by the computer-generated report as if he or she remained in the home.
Missouri officials said the errors did not result in any ineligible people receiving benefits, and the amount of benefits paid to lower-income households was correct.
But the figures submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture could have played a role in determining which states qualified for bonus payments based on their high percentage of food stamp enrollees and their general management of the program, Missouri's department acknowledged.
In October, Missouri touted the fact that it earned nearly $4.4 million in performance bonuses from the USDA for "exceptional management of the state's food stamp program." A news release noted that Missouri was getting its sixth consecutive bonus for having a high ratio of food stamp participants compared to the number of people living below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.
"We felt pretty good that we were reaching almost everybody in the state that qualified for food stamps, (but) that number is going to be a little bit lower," said department spokesman Scott Rowson.
He said Missouri's revised food stamp participation rate is still being calculated, but it may remain in the top one-third of all states.
The department notified the USDA's regional administrator for Food and Nutrition Service about the error in a letter received late in the business day Monday. The information was quickly forwarded to the national office, said Anjali Budhiraja, a spokeswoman for the regional office in Denver.
"Our folks here are trying to make sure which figures these are and how they are used," Budhiraja said. "In terms of how that might impact dollars, we just don't know right now."
Of Missouri's 2009 food stamp bonuses, nearly $2.6 million came as a result of its high participation rate, Budhiraja said. The state received high-participation bonuses of $2.5 million in 2008, nearly $2.3 million in 2007 and $1.4 million in 2006, but Budhiraja did not have figures Monday night for any prior years.