The long wait for food assistance: ‘We just aren’t able to keep up’

When Jennifer Zampi was laid off from her job in November, her first thought was to make sure she could continue to feed herself and her two children. She immediately applied for food assistance.

Three months later, she’s still waiting.

“I am never able to get everything I need when I go to the store, ” the 27-year-old New Britain resident said. “Just sometimes it’s like I have to decide between [paying] a bill and going to the store.”

She’s not alone. As the state’s economic problems continue, the number of pending applications for the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called and still referred to as “food stamps,” has grown from 3,500 in December 2008 to almost 5,000 a year later.

Some 40 percent of those applications have been on hold for more than 30 days, the federal time limit for processing, the advocacy group End Hunger Connecticut! says. And 90 percent of almost 500 emergency applications, filed by people with less than $150 to keep them going, are past the seven-day limit, the group says.

“It’s bad,” Claudette J. Beaulieu, deputy commissioner for the Department of Social Services, said Thursday. “We just aren’t able to keep up.”

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Claudette Beaulieu

The problem isn’t the cost of the food assistance; that’s paid for by the federal government. It’s a shortage of administrative capacity, the cost of which is shared by the state and Washington.

Beaulieu told the legislature’s Appropriations Committee that DSS is taking steps to handle the food stamp backlog. For one thing, the agency has just assigned a nine-person team to tackle pending applications.

“I really think in 60 to 90 days they can make big dent” in the problem, she said.

The number of caseworkers processing the applications has decreased in the past year while the number of people receiving food stamps are at record levels – almost 300,000 people in November, DSS reported. Last year over 260 DSS workers accepted a budget-cutting early retirement offer from the state, she said, and only 75 percent of the positions have been refilled.

“The whole purpose of a retirement buyout plan is to save on personnel costs. We cannot refill every position that is vacated,” Beaulieu said.

This exodus of the top-tier workers is weighing down access to the program, said Suzette Strickland, a food stamp access manager with End Hunger Connecticut!

“This is chaotic. They have lost the people who have been there and know how to run these programs,” she said, estimating that each caseworker is responsible for at least 2,000 cases. “That’s just not a case load anyone could handle. They can’t work magic.”

People trying to get food stamps are waiting hours to submit their applications, said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut! DSS is so overwhelmed that people in line are sent away at the end of the day and told to come back later, she said.

Beaulieu acknowledged hours-long waits in some offices, and said the “mountains of paperwork” are unmanageable. She told the Appropriations Committee her agency is in the final stages of purchasing a new management system, including an automated phone system, document management system and an online system for applications and account management.

“We’re still doing business the way we did in the 1970s when I first started here,” she said during an interview. “Our system has not changed, but the amount of work certainly has. This will hopefully help.”

Last month, DSS service centers received 150,000 phone calls; 100,000 were basic inquiry questions an automated system could have answeredinstead of caseworkers, Beaulieu said.

But the system upgrade won’t be fully operational until late 2011, Beaulieu said. Nolan said people are hungry now and the problem needs to be fixed now.

“They need more people handling these cases,” Nolan said. “The state is not meeting the requirements set by federal law and that’s a real problem.” She said Connecticut’s processing time is 13th from the bottom among states.

Meanwhile, Zampi is losing confidence that she will ever get the help she says she needs from the state.

“Maybe they’re never going to give it to me,” she said.