During these tough economic times, state programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) should provide a safety net to millions of Texans who are struggling to make ends meet. Currently, though, Texas’ SNAP program has such a backlog that it is unable to provide benefits to many Texans who need assistance. In fiscal 2009, only an average of 70% of cases were processed in a timely fashion. This has prompted two class action lawsuits from advocacy groups and a reprimand from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides the funding for SNAP.

How did we get where we are?

Though exacerbated by the current economic crisis, the problems with SNAP are by no means new. In 1999, some 10,000 employees worked for the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), determining whether families met eligibility requirements for SNAP and other benefit programs. At that time there were about 535,000 SNAP cases on file. Since then, the Texas Legislature has cut one-third of the staff even though the caseload in the same period has doubled due to Hurricane Katrina and the economic recession. In 2009, HHSC employed only 7,429 eligibility staff, but the caseload has reached a peak of 1,211,293.

In 2003, the Texas Legislature passed legislation that allowed for the privatization of certain parts of SNAP administration. Legislators hoped to save $646 million over five years by allowing Accenture, LLP to manage parts of SNAP. In 2005, Accenture took over the eligibility process; however, rather than improving the system, problems with training and technology led to delays in benefits for thousands of Texans. During this time, serious timeliness issues developed and a backlog began to grow. The contract was renegotiated in 2006 to strictly limit Accenture’s role and in 2007 the Legislature decided to scrap the contract altogether.

By that time, however, many tenured HHSC staff had either quit their jobs or been laid off because of privatization. After the contract was terminated, the shortage of staff became apparent—at that time HHSC had fewer than 6,000 eligibility staff.  The 80th Legislature authorized HHSC to hire up to 7,438 eligibility staff to compensate for the staffing shortage. Because eligibility regulations are so complex, though, it takes at least two years for staff to become fully trained.  In 2004, 91.6% of employees had more than two years of experience, but in 2009 only 48.4% did. This prevents applications from being processed as quickly and as accurately. Thus, when the recession hit last year and more SNAP applications start coming in, eligibility staff were unprepared for the increase.

Where are we now?

The backlog of SNAP applications is causing long delays or even denial of benefits to struggling Texans. Federal guidelines require that 95% of SNAP applications be processed within 30 days and emergency cases within seven days. In 2004, 97% of applications met federal timeliness standards, but in 2009 only 70% did. There is wide variation among regions of the state—in September 2009 only 36.1% of Houston’s SNAP applications met federal timeliness standards. In many regions, applicants must wait between one and three months before even getting an interview, and there is anecdotal evidence of individuals waiting up to 14 months to start receiving benefits. In addition to long delays, HHSC is denying benefits to Texans who are eligible to receive them. The negative error rate has skyrocketed over the past five years. In 2004, only 2.8% of applicants were falsely denied benefits, but in 2008 the rate reached 21.4%.

The performance of the agency has resulted in low employee morale, a class action lawsuit filed by the Texas Legal Services Center and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, a reprimand from the U.S. Department of Agriculture mandating that corrective actions be taken, and possible federal penalties up to $12 million. The lawsuit was dismissed on technical grounds, but is now under appeal. It succeeded in putting a much-needed spotlight on the eligibility issues that HHSC is facing.

On December 17, 2009, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid filed a second lawsuit over the backlog. Rather than suing the federal government, as the Texas Legal Services Center did, RioGrande Legal Aid is suing the state. The first lawsuit was dismissed because a judge determined that Texas Legal Services Center did not have authority to sue under federal law.

In August 2009, HHSC requested funding from the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) to hire an additional 656 eligibility staffers—the maximum number that had been approved in the state budget. The LBB initially denied the request, but on October 2nd granted HHSC authority to fill 250 of the 656 requested positions. The LBB authorized HHSC to fill approximately 500 vacant positions that already been funded. As of October 2009, the Legislature has authorized a total of 9,701 full-time eligibility workers at HHSC. If all these positions are filled, HHSC has authority to request more workers. The staffing cap is expected to be reached in early 2010.

What are the solutions?

Continuing to add additional staff will go a long way in helping to meet federal timeliness guidelines, reduce negative error rates and payment error rates, and improve staff morale; however, that alone will not solve structural and institutional problems that played a part in creating the backlog.

HHSC has also developed and submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture a “Timeliness Corrective Action Plan” that lays out several policies and procedural changes that should streamline the application process and reduce the current backlog. The plan includes conferring with other states to share information about how to improve timeliness rates, assigning 12-month certification periods, expanding telephone interviews, changing the way staff are trained, and reassigning experienced staff to work with and monitor new staff.

There are also some policy measures that require legislative change to enact. Several organizations, including Texas Impact, will likely recommend the following during the 82nd Legislative Session:

  • extend the SNAP certification period to 12-months
  • adopt more streamlined income verification policies
  • eliminate fingerprinting as a step in the eligibility process
  • eliminate the liquid and vehicle assets test for SNAP recipients

All of these changes would allow application to be processed in a more timely manner and would help struggling Texans more quickly get the help they need.

What you and your congregation can do right now?

Spread the word about SNAP

  1. In Texas only about 63% of Texans who are eligible for SNAP are enrolled in the program. You can help people find out about available assistance by displaying brochures and handouts at your congregation’s food or clothing pantry.
  2. SNAP provides flyers and handouts about their program free of charge. You can order both English and Spanish versions from their website to display at your place of worship. Click here.
  3. Provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) have increased benefits to SNAP recipients by about $20.00 per person per month. Additionally, ARRA eliminated the 3-month time limit on able-bodied adults without dependents. These changes stay in effect until October 2010. You can get more information to share with your community and congregation.

Help register people for SNAP

  1. Help individuals find their local HHSC benefits office by calling 2-1-1
  2. As part of your congregation’s homeless ministry or food and clothing pantry, you can pre-screen individuals to see if they are eligible for SNAP by using this prescreening tool
  3. Help individuals apply for SNAP and other benefits at Your Texas Benefits

Help applicants negotiate the process

  1. Given the current state of the SNAP program, it is not unlikely that individuals in your community may experience delays or incorrect denials in processing their application. You can direct them to community centers that specialize in HHSC benefits assistance, such as The Advocates Social Service of San Antonio.
  2. You can also help individuals get in touch with their legislators. Find out who represents you.

For more ideas on how your congregation can help, visit the SNAP website.