Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Georgia faces losing up to $76 million in federal funding due to its huge backlog of food stamp applications. It must fix a system plagued by understaffing, antiquated technology and a call-in center that cannot handle all the calls that come in. Today, an analyst on the right suggests a number of reforms, while one on the left writes that the state should hire an adequate number of workers to handle the overload that began mounting with the Great Recession.
Commenting is open.
By Rachel Sheffield
Georgia’s food stamp program is making headlines—and not the kind you like to see.
Tens of thousands of applications are backlogged. The state Department of Human Services blames it on a rapid, recession-induced increase in caseloads, combined with a decrease in administrators and a poorly designed administrative system. Now the feds are threatening to pull some funding until the state gets its bureaucratic act together.
Certainly DHS needs to address the administrative problems. But the reality is that the food stamps program as a whole is far overdue for reform. Wise reforms would help ensure that assistance is available to those most in need, while at the same time encouraging able-bodied individuals along the path to self-sufficiency.
Food stamp rolls have shot up dramatically over the last several years all across the country, growing by 125 percent between 2003 and 2013. Georgia’s food stamp rolls increased at a slightly higher rate, roughly 130 percent, during that decade.
Not surprisingly, food stamp funding also soared, quadrupling between 2002 and 2012. Much of the program’s growth is connected to the recession, but rolls were expanding long before it hit in December 2007. Part of the reason is that policy changes implemented before and after the recession have made it easier for individuals to get on food stamps and stay there.
Take, for example, the policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” adopted by Georgia in 2008. It allows states to fast-track individuals into food stamps. More problematically, it allows states to overlook a household’s assets when determining food stamp eligibility.
In Georgia and in most states, this means there is no limit to the amount of savings a household can have and still be eligible for the program.
Additionally, the food stamps program has no meaningful work requirement for able-bodied adults. A reasonable work requirement encourages individuals to get on the path to self-sufficiency and helps recipients preserve dignity. Yet even for able-bodied adults without dependents (“ABAWDs”) the modest work requirement enacted with the 1996 federal welfare reforms has been waived in most states, including Georgia.
A work requirement also helps protect against fraud. Requiring food stamp recipients to report all employment or undertake a supervised job search decreases the odds that a person will be able to collect food stamps while secretly holding down a job.
The food stamp funding formula also needs reform. Currently, 95 percent of the program funds come from the federal government. With so little “skin in the game,” states have little incentive to ensure the funds are used efficiently. To encourage wiser use of these taxpayer dollars, states should gradually take on a portion of food stamp funding.
The reach and cost of food stamps have exploded over the last decade. It is past time for reform. We should jettison policies (such as broad-based categorical eligibility) that allow benefits to flow to those not truly in need. Critically, food stamps must include a work requirement for able-bodied adults to encourage self-sufficiency, as well as to ensure that resources are going to the neediest.
States can take both of these steps now. In Georgia, it would mark much needed progress toward helping individuals in need and getting food stamps back on track.
Rachel Sheffield is a policy analyst specializing in welfare and family issues at the Heritage Foundation.
By Melissa Johnson
The state’s chronic underfunding of its human service agency is provoking the threat of a federal crackdown, as its food stamp program isn’t keeping up with the increase in Georgians eligible for benefits following the Great Recession.
Food stamps help put meals on the table for about 1.7 million Georgians every day. It’s too bad the program often serves as a political punching bag, because the truth is it provides a vital support system to many families that lost income when the economy collapsed.
It isn’t their fault the number of Georgians living in poverty rose to 1.8 million in 2012 from 1.3 million in 2007. It wasn’t their call to cut the state’s Department of Human Services budget by more than 15 percent since 2009. They certainly don’t deserve to be drug tested for the privilege of applying for food assistance, as pending legislation would require.
Still, families that rely on food assistance are left to suffer the consequences of an ongoing state budget squeeze. A flawed new phone system in state offices is causing unacceptable waits for people trying to get information about benefits. A backlog of applications is so severe the federal government granted the governor’s request to pause eligibility screening for some applicants to clear it before penalizing Georgia as much as $15 million.
Food stamps are one of the few public assistance programs in place to quickly meet the needs of families as they struggle to get by after the state and national economies collapsed. Thousands of Georgia families were able to use the benefits to purchase groceries after their personal finances cratered.
Operating an efficient food stamp program is also good for Georgia in the long run. Children in families that receive food assistance enjoy better health and educational outcomes as they grow up than children without access to food stamps. Children make up nearly half of Georgia’s food stamp recipients.
Georgia’s problem is self-inflicted. The state did not increase state spending to add caseworkers during the recession, even as caseloads began a rapid climb in 2009. State workers who review eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families handled an average caseload of 761 in December 2013, nearly 17 percent more than just four years ago.
The state did install a new phone system last year in an attempt to catch up with demand. But system glitches continue to cause long wait times and disruptions for both existing and potential food stamp recipients. The resulting backlog prompted a federal agency threat to impose penalties.
The state recently asked for a federal waiver to postpone eligibility screening for thousands of food stamp applicants before the May deadline to avoid the threatened penalties. The federal government granted the request, but this flexibility is just part of a short–term fix. It is past time for state leaders to calculate how many workers are required to run the program efficiently and budget enough money to get the job done.
Melissa Johnson is an analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.