TRENTON, N.J. – Nearly 1 in 5 New Jersey households that received emergency food stamps after Tropical Storm Irene crashed into the state last year were ineligible for the benefits, a review found, the result of a mix of mistakes, confusion and fraud as some rushed to cash in what was a new program for the state.
The emergency Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, now known as D-SNAP, has been around for nearly 40 years as one of the federal government's ways to provide food in disasters. While other states have used it before, New Jersey activated D-SNAP for the first time as a result of the scope of Irene, which caused widespread wind damage, power outages affecting nearly 2 million homes and massive flooding after it hit the state just barely below a hurricane level last August.
As word spread about the extra food stamp aid, government officials said, thousands of people who were ineligible rushed to cash in in some communities, including areas not hard-hit by the storm.
"It's whisper down the lane," said New Jersey Human Services spokeswoman Nicole Brossoie. "Folks came and lined up believing they were eligible for a program."
The total cost of benefits to New Jersey residents was $38.3 million — a fraction of the $145 million allocated in the state in federal housing aid after Irene. The average award for households already receiving food stamps was $171. Those not already receiving the benefits got an average of $559.
The federal government pays for the benefits and half the administrative costs. County social service agencies, charged with administering the program in New Jersey, found themselves overwhelmed as they did their regular work while also trying to process large numbers of claims.
In Burlington County, officials complained about a surge of applicants from Willingboro, a community that did not have heavy storm damage. Brossoie said similar reports came in from other regions.
Burlington County believes it could have rejected a large number of applications as either inaccurate or false if it had authorization and resources to better scrutinize them, social services director Daniel Boas said.
In its report to the federal government, obtained by The Associated Press, the Human Services Department said it reviewed 281 randomly chosen households that received the special aid, finding that 51 — or about 18 percent — were ineligible. Those found ineligible are being asked to repay the cost of the benefits they received. The state could claim federal tax refunds for those who do not pay what they owe.
There was no estimate of the cost of improperly awarded benefits. There was also no calculation of how many were due to errors by the county social-services officials running the program and how many were due to application errors or fraud.
The state's report cited a number of challenges in running the program in New Jersey for the first time. It noted that it took until February before every county could finish processing the last of the applications, which were supposed to have been handled in September.
Marybeth Schaedel, assistant director of the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, said New Jersey ran "a pretty good program" under difficult circumstances.
"For it to be your first disaster and you have it statewide, I never thought that's how we would be implementing a D-SNAP program," Schaedel said. "The whole state was declared a disaster."
The state report offers ways New Jersey can do better next time D-SNAP is operated here. It does not place blame on any specific people for the shortcomings. Its recommendations call for clearer forms for applicants to fill out, annual reviews of procedures by county social services officials and daily meetings of the staffs taking applications.
In its handbook about the program, the federal government advises states that it can take a week or more of training to prepare staff for the work involved in running a D-SNAP program.
Under the program, people already receiving government food aid may get benefits increased for one month up to the maximum for their family size. For a single person, the limit last year was $200 monthly; for a family of four, it was $668.
Households not receiving food stamps may receive the same benefits if they meet criteria for income and storm-related expenses.
In the state, nearly 62,000 households already receiving food stamps saw their benefits increased automatically because they lived in areas with flooding and power outages. More than 49,000 more households, including some already on food stamps, received additional benefits after reporting damage or lost income.
The state said 6,600 applicants were rejected. Schaedel said additional would-be applicants were stopped from applying in counties other than the ones in which they lived.
Alyn G. Kiel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the emergency food program, said that because circumstances are different with each D-SNAP activation, error rates should not be compared.
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