PHOENIX — Arizona provided food stamps and welfare benefits to some people behind bars — and some who were dead — according to a new report.
The study by the state Auditor General’s Office said the Department of Economic Security does not check to see whether some individuals receiving benefits are actually in state prison. Staffers said a random check found several instances in which inmates were enrolled in one or both of the programs.
It also found instances in a random sample of cases in which DES authorized benefits for people who already had died — and some cases where the electronic benefit cards they were issued were used after their death.
DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson acknowledged that the error rate in these two areas — inmates and deceased — is in the double digits.
But she said these cases amount to only a small percentage of the more than 1.1 million households that get benefits. And Peterson said the improvements in procedures suggested by auditors, which DES will implement, will reduce improper payments by only about one-tenth of a percent.
That, however, still amounts to $1.75 million a year in an agency that in 2012 gave out $1.75 billion in benefits through the programs, formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The report did show that DES generally has good controls over payments.
According to the audit, the average benefit under SNAP, also called food stamps, is $278 a month, with eligibility based on income and family size. Temporary assistance — TANF benefits — is calculated similarly and averages $214 a month.
DES does have procedures in place to see whether recipients are incarcerated in Maricopa County jails, as the law prohibits benefits to those who are incarcerated, auditors said. But there is no parallel program with the state’s own Department of Corrections or the state’s other 14 counties, they said.
Auditors found 13,920 recipients whose names, Social Security numbers and birth dates matched prison inmates in 2012 and selected 25 at random to review.
Of those, one person received benefits for 48 days, totaling $200 during incarceration. Payments stopped only when DES got a notice of an active warrant for that person, but there was no effort to recover what already was paid.
They also found three others who appear to have received benefits during some or all of their time behind bars, people not found because of a lack of checking their records against those from the Department of Corrections. But the auditors acknowledged that, because of the limited information they had, they could not tell if the recipients were actually inmates or the victims of identify fraud.
Separately, auditors looked at 60 randomly selected instances in which there were indications of benefits being paid after records from the Department of Health Services showed that person had died. That resulted in findings of 11 participants whose benefits were authorized after their date of death and seven others in which charges were made on their electronic benefit transfer cards after their demise.
Auditors said state workers are supposed to check health department records but could not explain why the matching process failed to flag the 11 requests for benefits.
They also examined nine cases in which the person getting benefits was the sole resident of the household, meaning there was no one else in a family eligible for benefits. In five of those cases, there were EBT charges after they died. Auditors said the agency does not attempt to recover overpayments in those cases.