SNAP Judgment: State officials hope to get food to the needy faster

When Sarah (not her real name) was laid off from her job as a medical assistant in April 2010, she wanted to "wing it," she remembers. But the job situation didn't turn around as soon as she'd hoped, and within two months, the single mother of four was applying for food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It was a blow to her pride, but she had her kids to consider.

She went to the Denver Department of Human Services office, filled out a form, and waited in line just to schedule an appointment. When she returned a few days later for that appointment, she waited another two and a half hours. "I was a little discouraged," she says, and the attitude of the staffers didn't make things any better. "A lot of them act like you owe them something," she explains.

Even after Sarah filled out more forms and had her records verified, another two months passed before she got her benefits, in the form of a debit card called an EBT. The program helped a lot: She was able to feed her children meals that included their favorite homemade enchiladas, and she made sure they had one meat item a day, along with vegetables and starches.

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When Sarah hadn't found a job after six months, she returned to the office to renew her SNAP benefits. After another long wait, she was recertified for another six months. And then this past April, with still no job in sight, she applied once again. This time the process didn't move as quickly. She called the Denver Department of Human Services every day to check on the status of her application, but got only snippy responses. She thinks they were tired of hearing from her.

After waiting a few weeks, Sarah resorted to visiting food banks, where "they just give a lot of canned goods, lots of bread," she says. "The kids weren't used to eating ramen every night." She also reached out to Hunger Free Colorado.

Two months passed before Sarah finally received her SNAP recertification. "Sometimes I just think they were being lazy, and sometimes I think they're just understaffed," she says. "I believe they're understaffed, but I have friends who work there who say there are a lot of lazy people, too."

Sarah's experience isn't rare: In January 2011, just 47 percent of the state's SNAP recertifications were processed within the federal standard of thirty days.

On December 21, 2004, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughlin ordered a 40 percent reduction in Colorado's out-of-compliance Human Services cases; the agency had fallen behind because of the new Colorado Benefits Management System, a pricey computer program that was supposed to solve problems but instead exacerbated them. There were just over 9,000 out-of-compliance food-stamp cases; the judge demanded they be processed by mid-February 2005.

Improvements were made, but then the economy hit the skids.

"I sort of describe it as the perfect storm," says Andrea Albo, director of the Family & Adult Assistance Division of Denver's Department of Human Services. Between October of 2008 and this past October, the number of SNAP applications in Colorado doubled — but 20 percent of the Denver Human Services staffers dealing with SNAP were laid off in late 2009.

Since the recession started, the state has seen a fairly constant increase of 2 percent, or 2,000 applications, every month, says Sue McGinn, state food assistance director. As demand has grown, so has the backlog.

And even so, Colorado has the country's lowest percentage of people who are eligible for SNAP benefits actually applying: 42 percent. Half a million people are missing out on benefits, Hunger Free Colorado estimates, and so the state is missing out on $2.6 billion in federal dollars that would cover those benefits. But if more people applied, that would also mean the state would have to process more applications — and so the state instituted a two-phase "recovery effort" designed not only to encourage more applications, but to speed up the approval of those applications.

When John Hickenlooper took office as governor in January, about 70 percent of first-time applicants were being processed within the federally recommended thirty days. (Denver's first-time applicants were at 45 percent.) By last month, the state's stat had improved to 94 percent — just under the federal standard of 95 percent. Big injections of cash helped the state catch up, but so did policy changes.

While SNAP is a federal program, states are in charge of processing applications, and make many of their own rules for how they do it. At one point, Colorado had the longest application in the country: 26 pages. In October, that was reduced to eight pages. And new servers were rolled out last December, which solved some of the CBMS snafus. "It's still the same name, but it's basically a new system," says Dara V. Hessee, chief of staff in the Governor's Office of Information Technology.

In addition, the state Department of Human Services has instituted daily production goals for staffers, increased training so that every staffer processes applications in the same way, and set up a system in which a SNAP participant can work with more than one staffer. "We're getting people to think of production goals as a positive thing," Albo explains of the Denver Human Services office. "Getting everyone on board with that has been challenging, but we've got 90 percent of our staff there."

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3 comments
UglyAmerican
UglyAmerican

What a fact challenged article. How do you write about PEAK and CBMS without talking to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, or finding out why it took Deloitte $44M to do what a local company could do for a fraction of that, or investigating why the state prefers to buy IT and software from non-Colorado companies?

Angela Foxhawk
Angela Foxhawk

It would be nice to know the facts in this article and your qualifications to speak to those facts. Enlighten us.

 
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