NORFOLK, Virginia — The U.S. Department of Agriculture slapped Virginia with a $3.8 million fine in August because the Virginia Department of Social Services has one of the highest error rates in the country when it comes to overpaying families in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps.
13News Now uncovered the Commonwealth is requiring some of its neediest families to pay back food stamps, even though government workers are the ones getting it wrong.
Brittani McLaughlin is one of the 730,000 low-income Virginians who rely on SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps, each month. Families are able to use them like cash when buying groceries.
“Every single dollar is budgeted,” said McLaughlin. “I couldn’t imagine not having these food stamps, honestly.”
McLaughlin has four little children, including a toddler and baby. With her children growing bigger by the day, she said the ability to put food on the table is constantly on her mind.
In order for them to eat, "I don’t even eat most of the time, I just get food for them,” said McLaughlin. “I will just drink me some water or eat me some bread and be about my day.”
Virginia has a 9.6% error rate, which ranks the sixth-worst in the country. When state workers figure out the error, they force families to pay back the benefits, or food stamps.
Salaam Bhatti, Director of Virginia Hunger Solutions at the Virginia Poverty Law Center argues the state should be punished for its mistake – not families.
“It is setting our low-income families, our low-income neighbors across Virginia for failure,” said Bhatti. “For families that are operating on shoestring budgets, I mean that’s a huge blow. How do you expect people to bounce back from that?”
13News Now found Norfolk, Newport News, and Portsmouth rank among the worst cities in the Commonwealth to issue SNAP overpayments.
OCTOBER 2017 – SEPTEMBER 2018
NORFOLK: 15.35% ERROR RATE, $1,922 IN ERROR
NEWPORT NEWS: 13.64% ERROR RATE, $720 IN ERROR
PORTSMOUTH: 11.20% ERROR RATE, $671 IN ERROR
STATE TOTAL: 9% ERROR RATE, $16,977 IN ERROR
Virginia entered into an agreement with the USDA to fix the error rates, with the Commonwealth paying $1.9 million which will be reinvested into the Commonwealth’s programs. If the state doesn’t correct the error rates by next fiscal year, Virginia will be required to pay the remaining $1.9 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Would you want to pay that back after something that somebody else messed up and it has nothing to do with you?” asked McLaughlin.
In a presentation to lawmakers earlier this summer, the Department of Social Services Commissioner Duke Storen said state employees are overworked and understaffed, which is in part, causing the error rates. Norfolk has the highest staffing vacancy rate in the state at 35%.
“A lot of the payment error rates happen because, well, maybe the staff didn’t have the time or they didn’t put the time into asking the right questions,” said Bhatti.
Duke Storen denied 13News Now’s request for an interview but Virginia Department of Social Services Director of Benefit Programs Toni Washington sent this statement:
“Federal regulations mandate the State agency to establish and collect on any overpayment of SNAP benefits no matter who is at fault. Households may request a compromise evaluation if it can be reasonably determined that a household's economic circumstances dictate that the overpayment will not be paid in three years.”