Farm Bill’s Database on Food Stamp Recipients Stirs Privacy Fear

May 15, 2018 Teaganne Finn

A national database designed to prevent food stamp recipients from collecting benefits in multiple states could risk millions of recipients’ private data and raise the chances of mistaken denials of benefits, the idea’s opponents say.

The House farm bill (H.R. 2), slated for a floor vote this week, would create a “Duplicative Enrollment Database” to track eligibility and prevent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients from getting food assistance in multiple states at the same time.

The provision, which would require states submit recipients’ personal data to the Agriculture Department—such as Social Security numbers, incomes, and values of household assets—has been met with clashing reviews from researchers and lawmakers over the database’s purpose. The bill would give the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service three years to develop it.

“I have a number of unanswered questions regarding this new database,” House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) told Bloomberg Government in a statement. “I’m concerned about the security of the data gathered.”

Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) told Bloomberg Government the secretary of Agriculture would be responsible for securing recipients’ information and “making sure that all the protocols are in place.”

Conaway has had trouble garnering support for the measure, as House conservatives have said they want more work-related requirements for SNAP recipients. The Senate’s version of the farm bill has yet to be marked up in committee.

Unnecessary Scrutiny

For Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a database seems to be an “over-correction.”

Less than 0.2 percent of SNAP participants were dual participants, she said, citing a 2015 evaluation from the National Accuracy Clearinghouse, a data-sharing project between five southeastern U.S. states.

“It feels very vague, and I think if they wanted to do a study of those with no income, there are other ways to do that rather than collecting millions of people’s Social Security numbers,” Dean said.

Danielle Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland who has written on privacy issues, is also skeptical of the database, saying “there’s no community more under surveillance than the poor.”

Potential for Errors

One of the biggest fears Citron had is the higher possibility for mistakes in a database this size. Because state agencies will all be contributing data, the “mistakes multiply,” she told Bloomberg Government. Currently, SNAP serves 42 million people. As the economy has improved, though, the number of SNAP recipients has been drifting downward.

“The potential for mischief, for errors, for personal data is only magnified,” Citron said.

The possibility of data entry errors was noted in the 2015 NAC report that recommended dual-recipient flags raised by duplicate Social Security numbers be double-checked.

“These matches often occur because one digit of the SSN has been entered incorrectly in the state eligibility system. In these situations, automation in place for other types of matches is not advisable, and states should confirm the accuracy of data entry before contacting another state or the client,” it said.

Not Unreasonable

Proponents say privacy worries are overblown. Conaway told Bloomberg Government he does not believe a database is intrusive. Bruce Meyer, a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agreed.

“I think this is, in my mind, the kind of scrutiny someone should expect when getting thousands of dollars of government benefits,” Meyer said. “To just confirm they are not in another state does not seem, to me personally, intrusive.”

The Congressional Budget Office released a report on the legislation May 2 estimating the database would cut spending by $588 million over 10 years.

One example of a state collecting this data is the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), which was part of a pilot program authorized by the 2014 farm bill. Its most recent quarterly statistical report found that, in 86 percent of ongoing SNAP fraud cases, no evidence was found to reduce or discontinue benefits.

“It does not seem like an unusual thing to require states to supply this information,” said Meyer, who says the database would most likely be subject to safeguards in the Privacy Act of 1974.

If the database would be governed by that law, the next question, Citron said, is who would be able to use the data.

“I can’t tell you who is going to be secure,” she said. “I don’t have a ton of confidence.”

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