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Mo.'s data inflated for food stamps

The error called into question millions of dollars of bonuses the USDA paid the state.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - Missouri acknowledged yesterday that it reported inflated numbers of food-stamp recipients to the federal government, calling into question millions of dollars of bonuses paid to the state for running one of the nation's top-flight programs.

The Department of Social Services said a computer programming error had consistently exaggerated the figures submitted since September 2002.

For example: The department reported more than 1.1 million food-stamp recipients this September. It now says the actual number may be closer to 855,000.

Missouri officials said the error did not result in any ineligible people receiving benefits, and it said the amount of benefits paid to lower-income households was correct.

But the figures submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture could have played a role in determining which states qualified for bonus payments based on their high percentage of food-stamp enrollees and their general management of the program, Missouri's department acknowledged.

In October, Missouri touted the fact that it earned a nearly $4.4 million performance bonus from the USDA for "exceptional management of the state's food stamp program."

A news release noted that Missouri was getting its sixth consecutive bonus for having a high ratio of food-stamp participants compared with the number of people living below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

"We felt pretty good that we were reaching almost everybody in the state that qualified for food stamps," department spokesman Scott Rowson said, but "that number is going to be a little bit lower."

Missouri's revised food-stamp participation rate is still being calculated, he said, but it may remain in the top one-third of all states.

The department notified the USDA's regional administrator for Food and Nutrition Service about the error in a letter received late in the business day yesterday. The information was quickly forwarded to the national office, said Anjali Budhiraja, a spokeswoman for the regional office in Denver.

"Our folks here are trying to make sure which figures these are and how they are used," Budhiraja said. "In terms of how that might impact dollars, we just don't know right now."