Many Are Still Waiting to Receive Badly Needed Benefits

Apr 29, 2010

By Josh Bone

At a time when many Americans are out of work and turning to public agencies for help, social service agencies are struggling to process applications in an accurate and timely manner. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) mandates that new applications generally be processed within 30 days, but few states are meeting that standard.  In fact, extreme delays in processing SNAP applications have resulted in lawsuits accusing Maryland, Colorado, Indiana, and Texas of consistently failing to process SNAP applications quickly enough.  In Texas, the state auditor released a report that decries significant waiting periods facing new SNAP applicants, and barriers to communication between SNAP applicants and state welfare services employees.

Applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits can face even longer delays because there are no national standards for timeliness.  Applicants for all programs discuss waiting hours and even days to be seen at local welfare offices, and having their phone calls to state offices dropped.

In many states, these problems are caused by inadequate staffing.  During much of the 1990s and the early 2000s caseloads declined precipitously, so states cut agency staff.  Now that demand for assistance has risen dramatically during the recession, states are facing budget shortfalls that make hiring staff difficult

Additionally, some states are dealing with aftereffects of unsuccessful reforms of their benefits processing systems.  For instance, in October 2009 Indiana's governor cancelled a contract that privatized the benefits application review process, claiming that determinations were increasingly inaccurate and that too many applications were being lost.  Judges in Indiana have since ruled that other portions of the Indiana benefits review process are illegal.  The invalidated practices include a tendency to reject incomplete SNAP applications for "a failure to cooperate" without explaining how the applications might be made complete.

The federal government has provided states with additional funding for administrative costs related to unemployment insurance and SNAP benefits.  States must ensure that workers and families have access to the benefits they need in a timely fashion.


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