Food Assistance Applications Processed Slow in NJ [AUDIO]
New Jerseyans in need of help putting food on the table are finding themselves being put on hold because of slow response from the state.
Applicants for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - formerly the Food Stamps Program - are required to be processed within a 30-day period according to federal law. An investigation from the Philadelphia Inquirer found New Jersey to be one of the slowest in processing applicants.
The USDA mandates any state that cannot process at least 90 percent of SNAP applicants must create a plan to raise compliance to 95 percent. New Jersey can only process SNAP applicants 73.75 percent of the time according to data, ahead of only Tennessee, Vermont, Hawaii, and Connecticut.
Adele LaTourette, Director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Alliance, notes in addition to increased demand from a tough economy, New Jersey struggles because SNAP benefits are processed by individual counties- many whom are understaffed and overwhelmed from budget cuts.
In an email statement, the Department of Human Services notes increases in caseloads, antiquated computer systems, and inadequate staffing and procedures caused the backups. However, steps are being done to streamline the process.
"New Jersey is working closely with its counties to improve processing timelines. We've piloted 'case banking,' which means that any Board of Social Services staff can work on any case - as opposed to a client having just one particular case worker. This has proven very successful."
"In addition, beginning this fall, we'll be rolling out CASS and DIMS. CASS is the Consolidated Assistance Social Services program, which is an upgraded IT system that will provide real-time data review of cases. DIMS is a Document Imaging Management System that will allow for the electronic storage of eligibility materials that currently are stored in paper files. It also allows for the ability of staff to retrieve eligibility documentation that now has to be re-supplied by the client upon application for a new program."
She points out what ends up happening is people awaiting benefits must rely on emergency food services like food banks and soup kitchens, many of which are already "stretched to the max."
"With lots of empty shelves and lots of close to empty shelves."
She stresses the importance of expediting the applications, because even the thirty day waiting period can be stressful to those facing hardship. She points out often food is the only space where families have "wiggle room."
"You need to pay your mortgage, you need to pay your rent, you can fiddle a little bit with food."
She does, however, give the state credit for their efforts, but laments there is still a ways to go.
"The state has been working for some time now on improving the business practices in the local offices to try and make the system move and function the way that it should, clearly it's not there yet."