After Irene, DSS makes food and cash benefits available sooner for many

Concerned that power outages and other effects of Tropical Storm Irene made many state residents especially hard-pressed to meet basic needs, the state Department of Social Services this month made food and cash benefits available to more than 360,000 people before many would ordinarily receive them.

“We knew that that was a huge segment of the population, and we figured that they would be probably disproportionately impacted by the outage,” Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby said.

The department is also seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service to provide reimbursement for lost food to people who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. In addition, DSS is seeking approval to provide disaster SNAP benefits to people who do not ordinarily qualify for the program but have experienced economic hardship because of the storm.

Both would be more likely if the state receives a federal disaster designation, Bremby said.

The decision to provide benefits early for some residents this month was made possible by the department’s preparedness efforts. Typically, people who receive benefits get them on one of the first three days of the month; the release dates are assigned alphabetically by last name. This month, the department made all benefits available to clients on Sept. 1, shaving two days off the wait time for many people.

Bremby said the department’s information technology department and other units decided last week to rearrange schedules so the computer work necessary to get the benefits ready could be done over the weekend, in case state offices lost power from the storm.

That allowed all benefits to be available on the first of the month. Bremby said officials decided to release them at once because the widespread power outages meant that many people would be unable to store the food they had already purchased. In addition to SNAP, the services involved were Temporary Family Assistance, State Supplement for the aged, blind and disabled, and State-Administered General Assistance.

The schedule change required paying about $1,000 to JP Morgan, which handles the benefits. “We thought it was worth the expense,” Bremby said.

Bremby said the department is going to examine whether it will continue distributing benefits over a three-day period, or release them all at once.