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The state of Vermont's Department for Children and Families reported late last week that accounting errors in the state's food stamp program would likely cost the state nearly $800,000 in penalties by next June.
The accounting errors resulted from the state exceeding the federal government's allowable error rate in payments it makes to food stamp recipients. The state gets penalized by the feds for errors that exceed 5 percent of the funds distributed to low-income Vermont families.
But that bad news is compounded by a mandate that requires families to pay back the overages.
Understand that this means that approximately 100,000 Vermont families that receive food assistance through the state's 3SquaresVT program are going to be penalized for the state's faulty accounting.
In 2012, the state sent overpayment bills to the families who had been overpaid that averaged $983. That's an unfairly large bill for a family that requires food assistance.
Right now the feds mandate paybacks for overpayments in excess of $400 per year although the state is trying to get that figure raised to $600. The state is also trying to make affected beneficiaries receive a hardship compromise if they can show that paying back the full amount would create a financial hardship. That requires Vermont's hungry families to wade through paperwork, which the state acknowledges does not always happen.
This is wrong on many levels. The recipients relied on the state to calculate the correct benefit amount. It is not their fault that the state erred. When state government makes a mistake, it is the responsibility of the state (i.e., all of us) to rectify it.
Vermont is a kinder state than that and we should not ask families whose benefits have already been reduced by $15 per person per month to pay back the overages.
Those families have already spent that money on food – they can't get back and they could only spend that money on allowable items.
Here's hoping the state can fix the accounting errors that led to this as well as the policy errors that would exact such a payback from hungry Vermonters.