Pennsylvania lags in food-stamp approvals

Gwen Varela said some caseworkers "treat us like trash. I have a job. I have two years at Penn State. I'm a person."
Gwen Varela said some caseworkers "treat us like trash. I have a job. I have two years at Penn State. I'm a person."
Posted: June 27, 2013

Already under scrutiny for taking too long to process unemployment checks and home-energy assistance claims, Pennsylvania is also too slow in approving food-stamp applications, compelling the federal government to order the state to improve its performance.

Pennsylvania ranks among the worst in the nation for getting food stamps to the needy within 30 days, as required by federal law, according to an Inquirer examination of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food-stamp program.

"There are only a few states where the problem is as extreme as in Pennsylvania," said David Super, poverty law professor at Georgetown University School of Law. The USDA ranks Pennsylvania 39th on a list of 53 that includes the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Critics say Pennsylvania causes backlogs by scrimping on caseworkers and emphasizing fraud prevention even though food-stamp fraud is rare. The result is that many of the neediest citizens going without benefits for which they qualify.

Acknowledging the food-stamp problem, Anne Bale, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, said, "We have every intent of doing better."

Bale said the DPW, which oversees the distribution of food stamps in Pennsylvania, is working on a plan to correct its timeliness, as ordered by the USDA in December.

She said one reason for poor performance was that so many people - 1.8 million - receive food stamps, also known as SNAP benefits (for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Bale added that many clients wait until the last minute to submit their paperwork, causing delays.

Advocates for the poor say the problem is that the state has too few caseworkers processing forms.

They also say that the state spends so much time looking for fraud that it creates a system too full of red tape to function properly.

USDA figures show that even though several states process more claims than Pennsylvania does, they do so more quickly.

New York has more than 3.1 million SNAP recipients, yet it processed 90.94 percent of its benefits in the proper amount of time. Florida has nearly twice the number of Pennsylvania's SNAP recipients (3.5 million), yet garnered a timeliness rate of 94.01.

Pennsylvania's most recent timeliness rating was 81.44.

Any state below 90 percent must devise a corrective action plan that brings its timeliness up to 95 percent, according to USDA rules.

SNAP is not the only area where Pennsylvania comes up short in getting federal money to the poor.

In March, the U.S. Department of Labor chastised the state for "continued failure" to follow federal regulations that require states to pay first-time unemployment benefits in a timely fashion.

And since January, the DPW has been slow to process thousands of claims by needy families for home-energy assistance.

Timeliness delivering SNAP benefits would improve if the DPW put on more workers to handle the increasing volume of needy people, said Julie Zaebst, interim director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger:

"It's creating chaos at welfare offices where people apply for SNAP benefits, leading to people not getting benefits on time," Zaebst said.

Between 2002 and 2011, staffing decreased 14 percent in county assistance offices, Zaebst said. At the same time, SNAP applications doubled.

Bale did not address questions about caseworkers.

Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger advocacy group, said Gov. Corbett's decision to add an asset test to SNAP in 2012 when many states were dropping such measures "adds to the workload" of already stressed caseworkers, slowing efficiency.

Households with people under age 60 are limited to $5,500 in assets to qualify for SNAP. The figure is $9,000 for senior citizens.

The test was implemented to root out waste, fraud, and abuse, according to DPW officials.

But advocates say little fraud has been found and the increased number of documents people have to present overwhelms the application process.

Bale disagreed. "I don't think the asset test is slowing things down," she said.

Several advocates said the Corbett administration is ideologically opposed to programs that give money to the poor, which Bale denied.

"I don't think it's ideological," she said. "It's just a monumental task to get benefits to those who deserve them and to make sure that those who are not eligible don't get them."

Kimberly Rogers, a Coalition SNAP expert who helps people fill out forms, said county workers often will reject applications by citing errors when there are none.

It's not done maliciously, said Rogers, who added that she believes the caseworkers simply cannot handle the workload.

She added that Pennsylvania allows people to apply online to try to streamline the process, but not everyone has access or technical know-how.

One often-repeated complaint is that it's nearly impossible to reach anyone at a county welfare office by phone - a direct result of caseworker cutbacks, critics say.

Many low-income people describe county assistance offices as dismal places where tempers often flare and caseworkers are sometimes rude.

Around noon last week at the Somerset office on North Broad Street, one of the busiest in the state, about 20 workers were helping more than 100 applicants in the large space with dingy white walls and multiple signs prohibiting food and cellphone use.

Gwen Varela, 21, of North Philadelphia, was having a tough time getting her benefits.

A part-time day-care worker who makes $8 an hour, Varela said that the office had misplaced a form she gave them for her SNAP application.

Workers finally realized they had the paperwork, but it took them 10 weeks to rectify the mistake, Varela said. In the meantime, she added, "I had to beg for food."

Varela said anyone who isn't a great bookkeeper was "done for. They're so disorganized here."

She, like many other people interviewed, said a few caseworkers "treat us like trash. I have a job. I have two years at Penn State. I'm a person."

Varela said that after being on SNAP for 11/2 years, she just learned her caseworker's name.

"Every other month you come here, there's something wrong," she said. "They're always trying to find a reason to cut you off. It's awful."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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