California fined $62.5 million for 2002 food stamp errors

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The federal government has fined California $62.5 million for making too many mistakes in handing out food stamps last year, following a record $114 million fine for the same problem in 2001.

California's 14.8 percent error rate was nearly double the national average of 8.26 percent, according to a letter from Eric Bost, the U.S. Agriculture Department undersecretary who oversees food and nutrition services.

The state issued more than $172 million in coupons to recipients who were not entitled to them and did not give $79.5 million to others who were entitled, Bost said.

California, which provides more than 1.7 million people with food stamps, has struggled for years to improve its track record. Its error rate was 17.4 percent in 2001.

The federal government has offered to settle the penalty if the state agrees to invest half of the latest penalty over the next two years to improve the food stamp program. And if the state brings its error rate into line with the national average by September 2005, the penalty will be cut in half.

California's problem has been fueled by difficulties in Los Angeles County, which installed a new computer tracking system in 1999, said Rita Saenz, director of the state Department of Social Services.

Workers were poorly trained in the computer system and resorted to tracking cases by hand, she said. The state sent a consulting team to Los Angeles for a yearlong overhaul of the system.

After hitting a high of 22 percent two years ago, Saenz said, the county's error rate dropped to about 9 percent in recent months. In February, the rate dipped as low as 4 percent, she said.

To qualify for food stamps, a family must have a gross monthly income of no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline. The stamps are used like cash at grocery stores.


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