Long wait for food assistance ended

When Jennifer Zampi was laid off from her job last year, it took her months to get food subsidies to help her buy groceries to feed her two children.

The 27-year-old New Britain resident was just one person on the long list of 5,000 people last December with pending applications for the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called and still referred to as “food stamps.”

Since then, enrollment in the program has grown to an all-time high of just over 300,000 people a month but the backlog has been nearly eliminated, the Department of Social Services Commissioner Michael P. Starkowski said Tuesday.

So what happened?

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DSS Commissioner Michael Starkowski tells legislators the food stamp backlog has been dramatically reduced as two agency staffers look on (Jacqueline Rabe)

Starkowski says $3.7 million in new federal dollars allowed his department to hire more staff.

“What you’ve seen in the past six, seven, eight weeks is an expedited process for the applications,” he told the legislature’s Human Services and Appropriations committees Tuesday. “We’ve thrown what we can at the system.”

“We no longer have a time limits issue in terms of the timely processing of our SNAP applications,” echoed Ron Roberts, administrator of the Southern region DSS offices.

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

But now leaders of End Hunger Connecticut! are praising DSS for tackling the backlog.

“We had a lot of complaints earlier, but our staff has seen a huge decline in the number of people complaining that they are not getting their subsidies in the time required,” said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!

Nolan and Suzette Strickland, End Hunger’s SNAP director, said they estimate about 75 percent of the applications they file are processed in the required time frame. And when they aren’t, there are nowhere near the long four- and five-month waiting periods that use to plague the DSS application process.

DSS acknowledged the problem in February.

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

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

Starkowski said Tuesday during an interview DSS was only able to catch up because the $3.7 million in federal stimulus dollars allowed DSS to re-hire 36 retired workers, three for each DSS office around the state, whose focus was to eliminate the backlog.

“The big impetus for this is that in the past 18 months we have seen the most significant increases in applications we have ever had,” Starkowski said.

Enrollment in DSS programs are up across the board, but staff is down. Last year over 260 DSS workers accepted a budget-cutting early retirement offer from the state, about 25 percent of the jobs are still open. DSS currently has 620 staff members responsible for eligibility processing.

Nolan said she is grateful for the 36 new workers devoted to SNAP applications, but can’t help but recognize they are being funded by one-time revenues that will run dry July 1, 2011.

“They will absolutely still need that staff then,” she said.

But Starkowski said by the time the money runs out, the department will have a new computerized system for processing applications. The new system will end the paperwork “piling on [DSS workers’] desks.”

They’re not going to get a piece of paper,” he said, because everything will be handled electronically. “A supervisor will know in real time that the application was sent to this particular worker on Thursday at 2 o’clock in the afternoon… There will be much more accountability.”

DSS has purchased a new management system, including an automated phone system, document management system and an online system for applications and account management.

In January, DSS service centers received 150,000 phone calls; 100,000 were basic inquiry questions an automated system could have answered instead of caseworkers, Beaulieu said during an earlier interview.

Because this new management system will be up and running by the time funding runs out for the 36 workers, Starkowski said the backlog should not happen again.