As millions wait on food stamp approvals, feds tell states to speed it up

As millions wait on food stamp approvals, feds tell states to speed it up

Alex Brown | (TNS)

Alaska has some of the most expensive groceries in the country.

Many rural Alaskans depend on food stamps, and many grocery stores rely on their customers’ use of those benefits to support their businesses. So, when the state delayed residents’ requests for food aid for months at a time, the crisis threw entire communities into disarray.

“We are seeing increased demand at food pantries and soup kitchens,” said Rachael Miller, chief advocacy officer with the Food Bank of Alaska, which provides food to partner organizations across the state and helps Alaskans apply for food stamps. “There’s a huge strain on the system. This backlog has had a direct effect on people’s ability to eat and food banks’ ability to serve them.”

Alaska has struggled to keep up with food aid applications since 2022, leaving thousands of residents waiting for their claims to be processed. At one point, more than 15,000 Alaskans were stuck in the backlog.

State leaders have spent millions of dollars hiring more caseworkers and improving technology systems. The state still has a case backlog of 2,000 households.

Most other states also have fallen behind. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent warning letters to 32 states and two territories that are tardy on applications. USDA guidelines call for 95% of claims to be processed within 30 days. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, is funded with federal money but administered by state agencies.

The letters were part of a larger SNAP integrity push from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling out problems in 44 states, the District of Columbia and two territories that include payment errors and accuracy in case determinations.

Many states have struggled to maintain staffing levels at the social service agencies that handle safety net programs, even as their workload has ballooned with the expiration of pandemic-era waivers that streamlined the application process. Some states are boosting funding to add and retain workers, and others are investing in new computer systems to speed up their work.

Stacy Dean, the federal agency’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said the letters were intended to draw governors’ attention to the problem.

“We know state legislatures are in [session] right now and governors are pursuing their budgets,” she said. “This is a moment where legislatures can offer the support that states might need for necessary investments in terms of staffing or technology.”

Dean said federal officials are confident states will address their delays, and many states are scrambling to bring on more caseworkers and improve their processing systems. But food security advocates say these struggles are a symptom of long-term disinvestment.

“It is definitely systemic,” said Parker Gilkesson Davis, senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit focused on low-income communities. “Caseworkers are not paid enough, the turnover rate is unbelievable, and their [computer] systems are archaic.”

Alaska’s struggle

In Alaska, state officials say a host of problems led to the backlog. The state’s Department of Health and Social Services misunderstood a federal policy memo issued at the end of 2021, leading the state to extend food aid to some applicants without recertifying their claims. When officials discovered the error, the subsequent flood of overdue certifications in the summer of 2022 created a mountain of paperwork.

The agency also blamed a cyberattack and outdated computer systems for slowing the processing of applications. But the union representing some agency employees told the Alaska Beacon that budget cuts and low pay have caused a workforce shortage that is at the heart of the problem.

Deb Etheridge, director of the state’s Division of Public Assistance, said the agency has reassigned other staff to work on SNAP applications, created an online application system, retooled its training process, and is working to reopen offices that were closed during the pandemic. Last year, state lawmakers approved $60 million to address the crisis, with the bulk of that dedicated to computer upgrades.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, is requesting another $8.8 million this year to bring on 30 full-time employees. The agency said it currently has 142 eligibility technicians processing SNAP applications, including 42 who typically work on other responsibilities. It’s actively hiring for open positions, with pay starting at nearly $25 an hour. Agency officials say they need to reach nearly 200 technicians to clear the backlog.

The state also has suspended follow-up interviews with applicants — in defiance of federal policy — to speed through more claims.

“[Interviews] were taking an extreme amount of time,” Etheridge said. “We were growing the backlog.”

The USDA has threatened to pull the agency’s funding for the administrative portion of the SNAP program if it does not comply with the interview requirement, which was waived during the pandemic but now is back in place. Etheridge said the state is talking with the feds to resolve the issue.

Saima Akhtar, senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, a nonprofit that represents and advocates for social service recipients, is representing 10 Alaskans who are suing the state for its failure to provide timely benefits.

“Parents are eating less to make sure there’s enough for their kids,” she said. “People are trying to decide between paying for heat and buying food.”

Their lawsuit seeks to compel the state to meet federal deadlines, allow people to apply for benefits on the first day they contact the agency and provide interpretive services for those who speak another language.

“There are hungry people today,” said Miller, with the Food Bank of Alaska. “This is a very acute situation that needs to be both triaged and eradicated with a long-term vision.”

Lawmakers also are taking aim at the problem. Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, a Republican, has sponsored a bill that would expand eligibility for food stamps and streamline the verification process, a standard that has already been adopted by 41 states. The measure would eliminate restrictions on recipients’ savings and assets, while expanding eligibility to those making 200% of the federal poverty level, up from 130%.

Alaskans lose their benefits if they accrue savings or assets exceeding $2,750, keeping them in a cycle of poverty, Giessel told Stateline. State workers also spend up to 90 minutes per case on asset forms, she said. While agency officials say the expanded eligibility would force them to handle more applications, Giessel said the time saved per case would make up the difference.

“It would be an excellent trade-off,” she said. “It would be meeting the needs of Alaskans, and that’s the whole reason we’re here as a government.”

The bill was approved without opposition by the Senate Health & Social Services Committee this week.

A national crisis

Many other states are struggling to keep pace. Colorado has seen a 35% increase in households seeking food aid since before the pandemic, said Karla Maraccini, division director of food and energy assistance for the Colorado Department of Human Services. The state saw an average of 25,000 applications per month in 2023.

Colorado is one of 10 states with county-operated SNAP programs overseen by the state. Maraccini said some county agencies have trouble retaining staff. Caseworker jobs require months of training, involve high-stress work and often pay subpar wages.

“Even though the public health emergency technically is over, poverty isn’t over,” Maraccini said. “We want people to participate in this program, but when you tell people, ‘Please walk through our doors,’ it’s also really difficult to maintain that high caseload.”

The state has rolled out software that can process handwritten documents much faster than a human worker, and it’s working to deploy that in every county. It’s also exploring a texting service to interact with clients. County governments have called on lawmakers to provide more funding to help them administer the program.

In Texas, state leaders have long failed to properly fund social services, said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, the state’s largest hunger relief organization. The system reached a “tipping point,” she said, with the 2023 “unwinding” of Medicaid benefits, which required caseworkers to redetermine the eligibility of health care recipients who had been enrolled throughout the pandemic.

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“The state really prioritized Medicaid because they were anxious to remove people from the rolls,” she said. “But it’s more important to get people food who are eligible for SNAP than to kick people off Medicaid.”

With the slowdown in food aid, Cole’s organization has seen a 20% increase in requests for emergency food.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission declined an interview request, but said in an email that it has requested a federal waiver to extend SNAP certifications by six months. The agency also has redirected 250 staffers to focus on food stamp and Medicaid cases and worked to recruit and retain more caseworkers.

Georgia is another state where residents have been harmed by a backlog in food aid.

“There’s this huge customer service issue,” said Ife Finch Floyd, director of economic justice with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonprofit focused on marginalized communities. “Things weren’t great before the pandemic, but they have gotten far worse.”

Finch Floyd said food banks in the state are stretched thin, and she blamed the state for rolling back supplemental pandemic-era SNAP benefits before other states. She called on state leaders to make workforce investments to not only alleviate the crisis but also strengthen the program for the future.

The Georgia Department of Human Services did not respond to an interview request.

Looking for answers

Both state officials and food security advocates said the pandemic-era relaxation of some bureaucratic requirements was a success and called on the USDA to reinstate certain waivers. Several said the suspension of the requirement to conduct interviews for each application was particularly helpful.

Another exemption made more college students eligible for food stamps, while the feds also temporarily lifted the three-month cap on benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents.

“These steps helped so many people receive SNAP, and it helped states process applications much quicker,” said Salaam Bhatti, SNAP director with the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit focused on hunger and nutrition issues. “We saw that it worked.”

Food advocates said states should shoulder the blame for failing to meet requirements that were standard practice before the pandemic. But they acknowledged that it will be a long time before states’ staffing issues are resolved.

Bhatti said the USDA should at least allow states to waive some procedures if they reach a certain threshold of backlogged applications or staff vacancies.

But Dean, with the federal agency, said those requirements exist to ensure states are providing support for applicants as they navigate the system.

“Certainly some states really appreciated the flexibilities they were offered during the unprecedented situation of the pandemic, but it is important that they acclimate back to the requirements of how we operate the program in regular times,” she said.

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