A lack of oversight and proper investigation is to blame for millions of dollars of questionable transactions in Missouri's food assistance program administered by the Department of Social Services, according to a report from state auditor Nicole Galloway.
Many cases that should have raised red flags or prompted an investigation were not examined in a timely manner, if at all, due to both a lack of resources and not effectively managing the data that's available, Galloway said.
"The department needs to take these recommendations seriously to ensure they are able to root out bad actors who are abusing the system," she said during a news conference Tuesday in Kansas City. "When mismanagement leads to waste, fraud and abuse, the program is not serving its purpose, all while taxpayers are footing the bill."
DSS officials responded to the audit by saying they were working on a plan that will focus on data improvements to better identify fraudulent purchases. Under the plan, the department would "take action to either close or verify the recipient is still residing within the state of Missouri."
Most of the questionable transactions, reviewed over an 18-month period, came from people using their benefits outside of the state, Galloway said. Auditors identified $16 million in purchases that were made by people who hadn't used their benefits in Missouri for at least 90 consecutive days. In addition, 39 people had not used their cards inside Missouri in over 700 days — an indication the purchaser no longer lived in the state.
Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Empower Missouri, told the Associated Press that one reason for so many out-of-state transactions could be that eight states border Missouri.
"The best store to buy what they need, whether it's a coat or groceries, may actually be across the state line," she said.
While the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program allows occasional use outside the state where the benefits are issued, cardholders are required to live in the state so government money is appropriately distributed. The audit noted that people were spending their benefits as far away as California and Florida, but conceded that military service is considered a legitimate reason for spending out of state.
"We need to make sure the money that is available from the federal government for these benefits are going to families that need them," Galloway said. "It matters how the state is administering these programs."
Another key finding showed Missouri residents receiving food assistance benefits while either incarcerated or after passing away. According to the auditor's report, 3,668 food purchases were made by another person more than a month after the cardholder had died. In 2,358 of the cases, purchases were made even though the cardholder was jailed for at least a portion of the period reviewed by the auditor's office.
"These situations exist because Social Services does not have effective controls to detect when benefits are issued to deceased or incarcerated recipients," Galloway said. "It heightens the risk of abuse or misuse of the benefit program."
Ultimately, more financial resources aren't necessary to help the department investigate questionable purchases, Galloway said. Instead, the audit recommends better use of data analytics and a more strenuous interpretation of available statistics.
"I recognize that DSS has limited resources. They have 20 investigators to do this work. By implementing our recommendations and using data to their benefit, they can more effectively root out abuse of the program with the limited resources they have," she said. "When they have 51,000 alerts and in our audit period only looked at five of those, that tells us that data is not useful to them."
In Fiscal Year 2016, SNAP provided nearly $1.2 billion in benefits to a monthly average of 810,690 Missouri residents, according to a January 2018 report from the Department of Agriculture.