The only problem with SNAP is underfunding

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MPR recently ran a story explaining some of the reasons behind the error rates in Minnesota’s SNAP payments, formally known as food stamps. The federal government says Minnesota made about $38 million in 2012 payment errors, comprising about 5 percent of SNAP’s $750 million in total benefits. On its face, this number, and the corresponding rank as “one of the worst in the nation” feeds right into the idea of benefit cheaters that has helped put the entire SNAP program in jeopardy.

However, there are many problems with that type of framing, starting with the number itself. First, of that $38 million, an estimated $8 million came from underpayments, not overpayments as the story points out. Second, according to the analysis, about 79 percent of that overpayment was found and corrected, leading to a total real “error” of only $6.3 million, or a paltry 0.83 percent of total funding.

Beyond that, this errant payment was not the result of anyone trying to game the system, but was rather the result of administrators pushed to the limit by massive increases in people qualifying for aid. This problem can also be seen in this map of our shortfalls in providing access to summer lunch programs to children who qualify for them. The problem here stems from an underfunded, not overfunded, program.

What’s worse, is that even pushed to the extreme, Minnesota is still failing to serve all of its SNAP-eligible population. Of those who qualify for benefits, only an estimated 73 percent receive them, and only 62 percent of eligible working poor get the food assistance they qualify for. Those are the numbers we should be worried about, especially when our neighbors in Wisconsin can cover 84 percent of their eligible population, and both Maine and Oregon can get to 100.

More than just about anything else, access to enough food should be one of the foundational rights in this country. Sure, healthier kids do better in school and SNAP payment pay back $1.70 for every dollar spent, but does that really matter? We’re talking about food, on par with water and air as one of those “necessary for life” things. It should be a priority to make sure everyone can afford such a basic need, and at less than one percent real error, it would seem expanding, not shrinking SNAP is the way to go.