Thursday, November 05, 2009

Food stamp woes grow with need

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje
San Antonio Express-News

Despite efforts to improve the system, food stamp applicants continue to face long delays in assistance amid a recession-fueled surge in demand.

In Bexar County, the state processed 22,463 more applications from March to September than it did in 2008. More than 210,000 people received $26 million in food stamps in October in the county, with the average family getting $322 a month. In the vast majority of households receiving food assistance - 82 percent - at least one person is employed.

Many have had to wait six months for their first food stamps. "We're just not keeping up," said Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. "We're processing more cases per month than we have before, but we just don't have enough workers. Our employees are ... exhausted and working extended hours. We need to give them a break, but there are still people lined up waiting for services."

State leaders recently said 250 more employees will be hired to process applications, with more to come. Goodman said she hoped to have 750 additional workers out in the field by next spring.
"We're planning to hire 150 to 250 per month, but of course all those additional people have to get desks, phones and computers. They all have to be trained, which takes time. So we probably won't be able to feel the affect until spring."

The backlog in qualifying people for food stamps has left many San Antonians frustrated. When Damian Perez and girlfriend Sandra Hernandez tried to get food stamps, they thought they had done everything right.

The application was arduous, requiring a raft of documents for verification. They brought in all the right forms. "Then they told us to come back on Monday," Perez said. They were asked for more documentation the next week, and the application was delayed several times. "The bottom line is it took us about six months to get the (Lone Star) card," said Perez, whose girlfriend since has found work. "All I want is for somebody to be accountable. I want somebody to say, 'We messed up.'"

Their experience is far from a quirk in the system: About 40 percent of Texans who apply for food stamp assistance aren't certified within the 30 days required by federal law.

Some go hungry "It's a humongous problem," said Renee Trevino, an attorney and group coordinator for public benefits with the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which helps people experiencing food stamp delays. "We've had clients who have just given up because it takes months and months for them to even get an interview."

In the absence of food assistance, she said, low-income people rely on food pantries or forgo paying rent or utilities. Sometimes, they go hungry.

Cyrus Orozco, who makes $100 a week washing dishes, was struggling to buy a $13 can of powdered milk to feed the youngest of his three children. When he applied for food stamps, he was told it would be six months before he could receive assistance.

"I just couldn't wait that long," he said. "My children had to be fed." He sought help from the Advocates Social Services of San Antonio, whose volunteers are experts at navigating the food stamp application. Within two days, he had his food stamp card.

Carlos Mata, head of the agency, said he sees about 100 clients a month who have found their food stamp application delayed or derailed. He said the average wait is three to four months. He claims some 3,700 Bexar County families are being unjustly delayed from getting food stamps.

Food bank depleted In the meantime, people seek help from places such as the San Antonio Food Bank, not only for emergency food but for assistance in applying for food stamps.

Eric Cooper, the food bank's executive director, said last month his organization processed about 3,500 applications. When there are delays, applicants come back to him for groceries.

"Our resources are being depleted at a much more rapid rate because of delays," he said. "Food banks across the state have felt this tidal wave of need. ... This business-as-usual approach has created a significant backlog."

Houston's state Rep. Jessica Farrar, chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, said complaints about the food stamp program make up the chief reason for calls to her office. She blames an attitude among some lawmakers that if you starve the program, the problem will go away.

"This is symptomatic not just of the food stamp program but mental health, children's health insurance, welfare," she said. "If you don't spend the money, then the problem doesn't exist. In Texas, we consistently turn away money that then goes to other states. That needs to change. We need to take care of Texans in need."

The food stamp program has been in trouble since the 1990s, said Celia Hagert, senior policy analyst for the Center of Public Policy Priorities, a group that helps low-income people. She said that in 2006, the state sought to privatize the food stamp program, a move that triggered a massive exodus of workers.

"We lost about a third of the work force, maybe closer to half," she said. The privatization program was put on hold, but the dearth in workers remained. "The system became overwhelmed, and since then we haven't met the federal standard," she said.

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