Tucked away in the Fiscal Year 2010 appropriations for the Department of Defense are some other appropriations Congress wanted to fast-track. One provides a total of $400 million more to help states–and the District of Columbia–cope with increasing pressures on their food stamp programs.
The costs of food stamps themselves are covered by the federal government. But state and local agencies have to administer the program. The federal government ordinarily picks up about 50% of the administrative costs, leaving states responsible for the rest.
The supplement will increase the federal share, with the greatest amounts going to the states with the highest percentages of households in the food stamp program and the greatest recent increases in the number participating. The District will get nearly $1.5 million.
The recession has vastly increased applications, caseloads and, with them, needs to periodically re-verify eligibility. Backlogs have become a serious problem. In our own backyard, Maryland is under court order because of excessive processing delays. At least four other states have settled similar class action lawsuits. Texas has been told it may lose federal funds if it doesn’t speed up its system.
Last year, the District got a bonus performance award for the timeliness of its applications processing, along with an award for program access, i.e., the percentage of eligible residents enrolled in its program.
But applications processing doesn’t measure how long people have to wait to complete the intake process. We read of people waiting hours–even days–to get the required meeting with an Income Maintenance Administration staff member. No wonder, given the staff cutbacks and rising unemployment rate.
And bonus award notwithstanding, the participation rate here leaves room for improvement. This means that IMA should be investing resources in outreach to low-income people who don’t know they’re eligible or are deterred by barriers real and imagined. The hassle factor, including the costs of repeated trips to an IMA service center, are surely among the former.
Now IMA could have reduced its administrative burdens by swiftly implementing the Food Stamp Expansion Act because making more people categorically eligible would reduce needs to go through the complex process of calculating assets. It might have gotten a larger share of the supplement too.
We’re given to understand that it will complete implementation some time this spring. By then, it will also have its extra administrative funds. So we should see shorter waiting times in the service centers, quick turnarounds on applications and a higher participation rate.
This, of course, assumes that the Fenty administration uses the extra funds as Congress intended. Staff at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have warned that states could reduce their own funding for food administration and use the new federal funds instead.
But surely that won’t happen here. Will it?