Several states have run the program in a way that is "problematic and resulted in a more complex and difficult enrollment process," the department said in a letter to state administrators dated Nov. 20 and obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press. The letter, signed by Kevin Concannon, the department's undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, says practices in those states "have not served our clients or our taxpayers well."
The letter comes as the department released an annual report on food stamp enrollment and eligibility showing that just 18 states enrolled 70 percent or more of those eligible for food stamps in 2007, the time period covered by the report. Dozens of states failed to reach some of the country's most needy citizens, the report stated.
Food stamp programs "are essential to good nutrition and well-being, especially in tough economic times," Concannon said in a statement commenting on the report.
Two states — Wyoming and California — had fewer than 50 percent of those eligible enrolled to receive food stamps. Many of the states that struggled were among the most populous, including New York, where 61 percent of eligible citizens participated; Florida, where 57 percent participated; and Texas, where 55 percent were enrolled.
The most successful state was Missouri, where nearly 100 percent of those eligible received government aid. Maine, Michigan, Tennessee and Oregon also had participation rates of 87 percent or higher.
Still, the department's letter was a sharp rejoinder to states with high numbers of eligible citizens and low participation rates. It specifically criticized states where private firms, rather than state workers, processed enrollment.
"We believe that the outsourcing of key ... processing duties to for-profit organizations is an unwise use of state and federal resources that undermines program accountability," Concannon wrote.
For-profit enterprises haven't been able to process food stamp applications or recertifications quickly enough, Concannon said in the letter, in part because dividing responsibilities between the state and the enterprises complicated the process for applicants. As a result, many of those eligible are not receiving food stamps.
Concannon suggests that states consider other options, such as tapping nonprofit organizations that can provide assistance to potential applicants and improving the use of technology such as call-centers, online applications and electronic case filing systems.
The report came amid growing evidence that the economic slowdown has left more Americans hungry. Last week, the department's annual report on food insecurity showed that in 2008 a higher percentage of Americans than ever went hungry or struggled to put food on the table.