Rep. John Lewis on State Food Stamp Disbursement Problems
WASHINGTON - On Monday, the Georgia Department of Human Services received a letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) warning that due to its continued failure to meet federal requirements in the effective disbursement of supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits (SNAP), often referred to as "food stamps," it risks suffering a $15 million cut in federal funding, if the state does not become compliant within 30 days.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called the Food Stamp Program, is a domestic food assistance program designed to help eligible low-income households buy a nutritionally adequate low-cost diet. Authorized by Congress, SNAP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (USDA-FNS). This law, formerly the Food Stamp Act of 1977, has since 1973 been reauthorized by the "farm bill," omnibus legislation that also typically includes the authorization of other federal agricultural policies and programs. The USDA provides funding and guidance to States who administer the program and distribute benefits locally. USDA began meeting with Georgia DHS weekly in January of 2014 to monitor the problem and offer support. Prior to those weekly meetings, the department engaged in many face-to-face, phone and other visits in an effort to avoid issuing a warning.
Earlier this year, however, Rep. Lewis was notified that the state was having difficulty meeting federal USDA requirements in the disbursement of food stamps and that a letter of advanced warning had been issued to Georgia. But when he was made aware that a formal letter of warning might be forthcoming, his staff began trying to quantify the nature of Georgia's problems. That inquiry revealed that in the past ten years, the USDA has only issued six letters of advanced warning regarding food stamp backlogs. In every case, all states involved became compliant within the time frame required in order to avoid receiving a formal letter of warning and risk a lapse in federal funding.
Georgia is the only state issued an advance letter of warning, within the past ten years, which has not been able to become compliant within the allotted period. There also appears to be a series of compounding problems beyond the backlog that bring into question the state's ability to effectively meet the needs of families and individuals who depend on food stamps to survive.
Not only is there a backlog of pending cases, but there are call center problems, which suggest that more than 40 percent of the people who call in requesting support are unable to successfully gain answers to their questions. "DHS continues to submit data confirming callers are not able to reach a worker through the call center. The most recent data shows 38 percent of calls were disconnected by the system during the week of April 4 and 47 percent were disconnected during the week of March 28. FNS continues to stress with the State the urgency of resolving this concern so that applicants have access to the program. "
As of January of this year, the state had a backlog of over 30,000 cases, waiting to be processed. As of April 8, 2014, though significant progress had been made in paring down the backlog, there were still a total of 3328 cases, according to DOA, that remain pending. Plus the state's concentration of resources on the backlog problem have resulted in a new backlog of "overdue SNAP applications and recertifications". This indicates the possibility of some kind of systemic breakdown in the management of the SNAP program in Georgia that the federal government will insist be rectified.
In order to relieve some of its pressure, the state requested the ability to waive two critical federal requirements--verification and the interview process. Waiving verification would permit people who request food stamps to receive them without verifying whether those people are who they say they are. The interview provides the context of the request and offers more information to the administrator processing the application, which can be used to determine need. In response to the state's request, the USDA has said that verification is a cornerstone of the program's integrity and cannot be waived unless the state can devise some means to ensure that the federal standard is maintained. It has granted a postponement, not a waiver, of the interview until the state can become compliant.
LEWIS STATEMENT ON WARNING
Throughout his career, Congressman Lewis has been an outspoken champion of anti-poverty programs including SNAP. As a Member of Congress, Rep. Lewis applies every tool available to him and fights persistent efforts to cut SNAP funding and/ or change the program into block grants. He consistently supports legislation to increase SNAP funding and opposes any and every effort to further penalize struggling families.
After learning these facts and hearing that a formal letter of warning had been issued to the state, Rep. Lewis made this statement:
"The state of Georgia seems to have become callous and indifferent to the needs of its most vulnerable people," said Rep. Lewis. " The poor, the seniors, and the sick must travel to a state office and pay for an ID card just to register to vote. The ill and the suffering will receive no relief from the expansion of Medicaid. People who feared they might lose their homes can't receive help in time to save themselves from foreclosure, even though millions of dollars were allocated by the federal government to the hardest hit states. And now the hungry, who are looking for Georgia to offer a safety net of support are victimized by poor management, even when federal money is available.
"Somewhere I read that as you have done to the least of these, so you have done it to me. The state of Georgia needs to be evenhanded in its administration. It cannot operate competently in some cases and incompetently in others. It must serve all the people --the poor and the rich, the sick and the able-bodied, the hungry and the well-fed--justly. It seems that our food stamp program in Georgia is not receiving the human resources and management expertise it demands in order to meet the needs of the people it was created to serve. That is not right, not fair or just. The state needs to fix the systemic and backlog problems immediately."