Feds: NC food stamp approval among slowest in nation

Posted May 26, 2015

Food stamps card

— The federal government is again threatening to withdraw operational funding for North Carolina's food stamp program – this time over the speed at which health officials are approving applications.

In a letter to the state's health agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said North Carolina social services workers failed to approve applications within the required 30-day window, or one week for emergency applications. In 2013, the state processed those applications an average of 75 percent of the time, ranking fifth from the bottom when compared to the rest of the country.

That means North Carolina lags behind neighbors Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina and even territories such as the Virgin Islands and Guam.

"The State's chronically poor performance in timeliness is in direct conflict with application processing statutory and regulatory provisions meant to protect a low-income household's right to receive nutrition assistance in a timely manner," USDA Regional Administrator Robin Bailey Jr. wrote last Thursday in the letter to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Operational funding at risk

The "advance warning" letter puts at risk the administrative funding the state and counties use to run the Food and Nutrition Services program.

DHHS Deputy Secretary of Human Services Sherry Bradsher said that, given how federal officials measure "timeliness," it's clear very few food stamp recipients are seeing problems with their benefits.

There is confusion among state officials, however, about how the USDA is getting that measurement – and why it's so different from the state's numbers.

Bradsher said she hopes to have answers by the end of the week. But she said the reports the state monitors from counties hadn't raised any red flags prior to the letter.

"As a state, we've been doing really well," Bradsher said. "We've been progressively getting better, which is exactly the trend we want to see – and doing that, quite honestly, with a few bumps in the road here and there in terms of getting to that steady state with all of our benefit programs."

Bradsher acknowledged there was a discrepancy between her evaluation and that of the USDA. But she said the rollout of NC FAST, a massive  technology upgrade meant to streamline the delivery of public assistance, and a growing demand for social services have been a challenge for staff at the county and state level.

"It all culminates in a way that makes it difficult to manage at best, but I think we're doing a good job managing it and moving the state forward," Bradsher said.

She said counties have seen a flood of applications for other services since November 2014, such as Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act and requests for heating assistance during the winter, which have slowed processing in other areas.

These surges come after the time period the USDA examined. In fact, updated data the federal agency references in its letter show the best processing rates actually tick up a few percentage points from July to December 2014, although they're still well below the federal standard.

Since then, DHHS officials have determined the state went from a timeliness rate of about 70 percent to almost 79 percent in March. Bradsher feared that period would show a downward trend.

"Much to my surprise and, really, gratefulness, we didn't see that, we didn't experience that, even with those applications," Bradsher said. "It's a level of assurance that we are getting to a better place."

State health officials will work with the USDA and aim to comply with the federal 95-percent requirement by January.

Part of that effort, DHHS officials say, will be working with counties to encourage more hiring and provide more training – an effort the state has employed in the past.

More trouble for social services

It's been a little more than a year since DHHS emerged from a similar USDA threat that also would have suspended nearly $90 million in administrative funding from the state and counties, which actually administer the program.

The problems began to mount in 2013 with the gradual rollout of NC FAST, which is designed to pull together 19 systems used by social services workers in the past. Technical problems, a boom in demand for social services and an intermittent flood of applications from the federal HealthCare.gov system hit food stamp recipients hard.

In December 2013, social services workers struggled with a massive backlog of food stamp cases that hovered around 35,000, with thousands of families waiting months for benefits.

Following weeks of warnings from the USDA, state and county workers scrambled to drive down the backlog in the spring of 2014. The effort met the federal agency's March deadline, but it was costly to counties, which were forced to expand their workforces and pay overtime.

In his letter, Bailey acknowledged the work of state and county workers to correct problems with food stamp services.

"However, concerns remain with North Carolina's long-term trends in overall application processing timeliness, and the hardships this creates for thousands of low-income households across North Carolina," Bailey wrote.

While he noted that rolling out a new upgrade such as NC FAST does take time and adjustment, "timely access to [Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program] for eligible low-income North Carolina residents should not be contingent upon program modernization."

The federal agency requires the state to respond within 30 days with a plan to get back on track, including an analysis of the problems and who, specifically, will work to correct them. Data from the state must also show progress toward the 95 percent compliance rate, which social services workers must reach during the first half of 2016.

The deadlines mean state will have some time before the USDA moves to pull funding.

Inadequate progress would trigger a "formal" warning letter. If the state fails to respond adequately within 30 days of that letter, FNS could then choose to suspend funding.

Read the USDA letter to DHHS


Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all
  • Lightfoot Williams May 27, 2015
    user avatar


  • Timothy Watson May 27, 2015
    user avatar

    I think this mindset that many people have of those less fortunate is sick and sad. If you have never had to do without, if you have never been turned down over and over again for jobs, couldn`t find work that paid a living wage, if you got sick and couldn`t work, if none of these apply to you, then please shut up. If you have never been homeless, please shut up. You just don't know what it`s like to swallow your pride and ask for help. Then to have to wait on a red-tape filled process. I dare any of you just try living on food stamps for a few months, do without. Then we can talk.

  • Chris Perry May 27, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Food stamps are for people like your son. I doubt you would find a single person that would say other wise. However, far to many people that receive benefits are simply scamming the system. Nearly every time I go in to a grocery store, I see people use food stamps, that pay for their beer and cigs with cash. They have the latest and greatest phone, nails done, hair done and then go and drive off in a 20,000 dollar car. Something just is not right about that. It is time for some of it to end.

  • Melissa Noderer May 27, 2015
    user avatar

    For all folks who would deny the poor or underclass "free stuff" like nutrition, I urge you to walk in their moccasins for one month~~~take the "food stamp" challenge. My son, through no fault of his own, is currently unable to work. He is single and receives a $167 monthly food stamp card, which is about $47 week. It comes with MANY restrictions, including the inability to purchase something as nutritious as a rotisserie chicken. He cannot purchase toilet paper or personal hygiene item---not even bath soap. It is a terrible thing to use a broad brush to pain all poor people as leaches and "less than". Count your blessings if you are able to go to the grocery store and buy all the fresh veggies, fish, meat etc your selfish heart desires.

  • Paul Maxwell May 27, 2015
    user avatar

    The "Then let them eat cake" mindset is alive and well.

  • Eric Johnson May 27, 2015
    user avatar

    I'm all for assistance but of the few people i know that are on it, they are not trying to get off of it. I have heard someone say when i was 18 working my butt off in a grocery store, "Na girl i aint working no where! I let the government take care of me". I asked a young girl once that slept around just to have a child what was she going to do for formula and healthcare. She said its no big deal she can get wic and healthcare for free. Then she had another kid. So i am sorry if my view on it is harsh. SOME people need it. I have no issue if it's helping in hard times, but i think its mostly abused and perhaps if my small sampling was different i would feel different.

  • Eric Johnson May 27, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Perhaps you missed the headlines recently where NC had paid off all of its debts to the federal government and was one of only a few states to do so.

    The issue is everyone wants to expand this expand that take take take. There is no such thing as government funded. The government is funded by tax payers. If we were still in debt people would be complainig about that. Dang if you, dang if you don't.

  • Aanritsen Deur May 26, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread


    Did you notice any of those folks wearing diamonds or driving Mercedes?
    "Before we can truly understand another person, we must walk a mile in their moccasins. Before we can walk in another persons moccasins, we must first take off our own."
    -Native American saying

    If you haven't been in their shoes, you don't know the challenges they face.

  • Aanritsen Deur May 26, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread


    Ya know, when this state keep getting its name in the headlines for things like this, it brings shame on us all, especially when it's published to be running behind TN & SC along with VI & GU.

    Then with all the athletics education scams at local colleges.

    Can't we get our name in the news for something good? Seems not.

  • Aanritsen Deur May 26, 2015
    user avatar

    Not a surprise. When it comes to the poor and needy, current NC legislators just look the other way as evidenced by refusing to expand Medicaid and extend unemployment benefits the Federal government would have picked up part of the tag for.
    So instead, now many people are doing without or are heading for the welfare office when they have no other choice.