Sunday, August 16, 2009

To feed hungry Texans-Houston Chronicle

When it comes to federal programs, food stamps come close to being a freebie. Simply by providing half the costs of administering eligibility requirements, Texas and other states guarantee their low-income folks — primarily children and the elderly — crucial access to basic nutrition.

What the federal government asks in return is that states process 95 percent of food-stamp applications within 30 days. After all, hunger cannot be put on hold while bureaucrats dither.

Texas, which has had difficulty meeting that requirement for years, is getting worse. With the recession prompting rising requests for food assistance, the Lone Star rate of noncompliance rose from 19.2 percent in January to 37.2 percent last month. That failure has prompted a federal class action lawsuit by two citizen advocacy groups to force the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to put the eligibility process on the mandated federal schedule.

In recent years the commission has pushed through ill-considered privatization schemes that resulted in increased delays to processing applications for the Children's Health Insurance Program and other state-supervised federal programs. It has failed to hire an adequate number of workers to handle the growing food-stamp applicant backlog, even though the Legislature approved funding for an additional 656 positions. An HHS spokeswoman said approval for the hires has not been cleared with state leaders.

Harris County is at the center of the crisis, with more than 364,000 residents receiving food
stamps. The average family gets $324 in monthly food assistance.

Houston state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat, says top Texas leaders have shown a callous disregard for the needs of poor constituents.

“When the people in charge don't like the government to provide services, whether it be health care or food, they just do a very poor job of providing the service,” says Coleman.

Texas must do better in processing food assistance to its neediest in a timely manner. It shouldn't take a federal judge to remind state officials of their responsibilities.

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