USDA gushes over electronic food stamps

Agriculture Department officials gathered in Washington, D.C., today to bid farewell to paper food stamps and celebrate the Food Stamp Program's conversion to an electronic benefits transfer system.

USDA Secretary Ann Veneman said at the event, "My only surprise is how long it took the whole country to get there." The conversion to an all-electronic system, which took 20 years to complete, required cooperation from banks, grocery stores, state governments, Congress and the National Association of Clearinghouse Administrators, among others.

Speaker Eric Bost, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said the nationwide electronic system has fulfilled his goals for the Food Stamp Program, which are to provide greater "awareness, access and accountability."

Defining errors as the overpayment or underpayment of benefits, USDA officials said conversion to an all-electronic system for managing food stamps resulted in a national error rate of 6.6 percent last year, the lowest since 1981 when program officials began collecting error data. At its historic high, Veneman said, the national error rate was 12.4 percent.

Eligibility determinations and payment allocations are 25 percent more accurate than they were three years ago. So in the past three years, the program has paid $173 million to eligible recipients who otherwise would not have received food stamp benefits, Veneman said. Likewise, erroneous food stamp payments have dropped by nearly a half-billion dollars in three years.

To mark the program's latest milestone, Veneman announced that the USDA would place a notice in the Federal Register soliciting ideas on whether the Food Stamp Program should be renamed, and if so, what its new name should be.

Veneman said any decision will be up to Congress. But, she added, USDA officials will share any ideas they receive on the renaming.

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