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.
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."
In May, the second phase of the Program Eligibility and Application Kit, also known as PEAK, was instituted; it allows potential SNAP participants to apply online and then have their applications verified either in person or over the phone. State officials had hoped the simpler process would convince more people to apply, and by late summer, there was "an attributable increase" in applications because of PEAK, McGinn says.
"As more and more people learn about PEAK, and as the economy continues on the path that it has been on, especially with people's unemployment benefits running out, I expect applications to increase," says Albo.
While extra federal dollars from the U.S. Recovery Act and U.S. Defense Bill allowed the state to hire more people from 2009 to 2011, that money is gone. But according to McGinn, Colorado has more than compensated for that loss of federal funding — $6 million all told — on the state level.
The Colorado Legislature approved $4.7 million in extra funding for SNAP this fiscal year and another $4.7 million next year, earmarked for the 21 counties, including Denver, that need the most help. After mid-2013, though, there is no additional funding in place for more staff. "At this point, we're lucky to have what we have," Albo says.
But while the state and county offices don't anticipate being able to hire any more full-time staff, they're not done making changes. The state's considering pushing the current recertification time frame from six months to a full year, according to Reggie Bicha, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services. And more CBMS updates include processing all human-services cases through one, rather than multiple, accounts. Currently, if a person is getting benefits from both Medicaid and SNAP, those benefits are handled as separate cases. With 86 percent of the families who qualify for SNAP also qualifying for Medicaid, that means a lot of extra cases. But those various accounts should all be combined into one by the end of this year, says Bicha.
The state's ongoing efforts to streamline SNAP — particularly its shortened application — were celebrated November 21 in the sprawling complex that houses the Jefferson County Department of Human Services. Governor Hickenlooper was on hand, touting his experience running a group of restaurants and bars and saying that the Department of Human Services needs to run like an "effective enterprise." And just as delivering food on time was important when Hickenlooper helped found the Wynkoop Brewing Company, it's important for Colorado to deliver SNAP benefits on time — not to people looking for a handout, but to "customers" of the government's service.
Sarah is hoping that she's no longer in the market for those services. In late October, she finally found a full-time job as a Toys R Us cashier; she was excited to get off SNAP before she needed to go through the application process yet again. "The SNAP program has helped me out, but it's not something I'm proud of," she says.
To make sure that she can take care of her family in the future, she's planning to return to school to train as a paramedic.