WASHINGTON (RNN) - Despite reports of fraud running rampant in the government's food stamp program, the United States Department of Agriculture insists it is at the lowest level in history.
Kevin Concannon, the USDA under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told a House Oversight Committee on Thursday the payment accuracy rate for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was more than 96 percent in fiscal year 2010.
The rate is higher than it has ever been.
"Payment error is less than half what it was 10 years ago, which has resulted in a reduction of $3.3 billion in improper payments in 2010," he said.
In the last 15 years, the USDA has seen a decline in the number of people trafficking SNAP benefits by trading them for unauthorized goods or services. The ratio fell from four cents on every dollar of benefits to one cent on the dollar.
In fiscal year 2011, more than $65 billion went to pay food bills for more than 46 million Americans, nearly half of which were children, according to Concannon.
However, some state leaders have found that fraud has actually increased in their areas.
Each state administers SNAP benefits on its own with oversight and funding from the federal government.
"In Pennsylvania, we're seeing more fraud - we are," said Kenya Mann Faulkner, inspector general for the Keystone State.
In fiscal year 2010, the state's Office of Inspector General collected more than $6 million in overpaid SNAP benefits.
In the current fiscal year, nearly 800 SNAP investigations have been conducted by the USDA, which resulted in nearly 1,400 indictments and about 950 convictions, according to USDA Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong.
"During that time, our monetary results have totaled more than $186 million," she said.
The panel, which included Concannon, Faulkner, Fong and Senior Vice President for Government Relations for the Food Marketing Institute Jennifer Hatcher, were asked about their background check process for food stamp applicants.
Concannon said that without access to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is reserved only for law enforcement agencies, criminal background checks are not available to the USDA.
Congressman Patrick Meehan, R-PA, echoed other members of the House Oversight Committee by asking for recommendations to "facilitate the basis to do what seems like a very common sense thing," including an exception for the USDA to use the NICS.
The hearing came after investigative reports from the Scripps Howard News Service found a number of stores were fraudulently accepting SNAP benefits.
An investigation by the USDA found that of the 36 locations specifically named in the Scripps Howard articles, more than 75 percent of stores were cleared of wrongdoing. The remainder were charged or disqualified for falsification with the exception of one that was charged with trafficking, one that was found to be inactive and another that is under criminal investigation by the OIG, Concannon said.
According to the Census Bureau, SNAP benefits, together with other programs like unemployment insurance and the Earned Income Tax Credit, kept 3.2 million people above the poverty line in 2010.
"The 2008 financial crisis drove more Americans into poverty than at any other time since we started tracking this data," said Rep. Elijan E. Cummings, a ranking member on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "The collapse of Wall Street and the evisceration of trillions of dollars in household savings forced millions of Americans to turn to this critical safety net, and it has been there for them."
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