More hungry families find food stamp progress lacking

Posted February 27, 2014

Bianca Williams, mother of two, surveys food from a food bank donation in November 2013. Right before Thanksgiving, she had spent months waiting for food stamp benefits from Wake County.

— In mid-February, Connie Poole woke up in her Wake County home, grabbed her phone and punched in a number in an activity that was quickly becoming routine.

For days, she had been waiting on a monthly food stamp allotment that should have hit her account on Feb. 7. Every morning since, she called the number on the back of her Electronic Benefit Transfer card to check her balance.

Now, with a crippling winter storm bearing down on the Triangle, those calls were getting more frantic.

"When my feet hit the floor, I check to see what's in there so I can get groceries before the snow," Poole said.

As the storm approached that Tuesday, Poole was down to the last few items in her cabinets. Whatever was left, she said, would have to stretch as far as possible.

"We've got peanut butter if the lights go out," Poole said. "I scraped up enough money to get hamburger so I could make a pot of chili. So, that will last a few days."

That same morning, a few miles away, the head of the agency responsible for supervising the state's food stamp program was delivering good news to lawmakers.

After several weeks of "herculean effort," Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told a legislative oversight committee that the agency met a federal deadline to significantly reduce a massive backlog of food stamp cases.

Food stamps card Q&A: NC food stamp growth

Tens of thousands of North Carolina families had waited months for help buying groceries, prompting federal officials in December to threaten the suspension of about $88 million in administrative funding for the state.

DHHS has pledged to clear the remaining cases, which include about 1,000 families like Poole's, by the next federal deadline March 31. Part of meeting that deadline means making sure the backlog never gets that bad again.

That can get complicated.

State and county officials say there are a lot of factors that contributed to the backlog in food stamps, which existed to some degree before 2013 and grew quickly in July with technical issues from a new records system. 

But another one of the major contributors is the explosive growth in demand for food and nutrition benefits over the last several years. Although that growth is slowing as the recession ebbs, it still lags behind other signs of an improving economy in North Carolina.

That's taxing everyone from case managers and their clients to the food banks that try to fill in the gaps when things get bad.

"This is the lag where the rubber meets the road. The economy starts to grow, technically meaning we are witnessing recovery," said Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "That doesn't translate to immediate impact to people, particularly in the bottom third."

Problems mount for food stamp clients

This isn't the first time Poole, a 51-year-old diabetic who stays home to care for her disabled husband, has been forced to wait for food and nutrition benefits. 

The couple has been on food stamps to supplement her husband's fixed income for around four years. But when she submitted her paperwork in January 2013 as part of the required semiannual recertification, Poole and her husband were forced to wait.

The same thing has happened every six months since.

When a new social services system called NC FAST began launching in stages in early 2013, similar problems popped up around the state. Case workers took longer to key in cases as they learned the new system and dealt with system hiccups, which caused sporadic delays. But in July, a software update significantly slowed down productivity and sent the backlog to almost 70,000 by August, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those technical glitches have since been fixed. But in Wake County, where Poole receives her food stamps, officials say the biggest problem now is that the staff is outmatched.

From 2008 to 2012, according to data from the Wake County Division of Social Services, annual food stamp cases in the county doubled, from 20,000 to 40,000, at a time when personnel numbers barely budged.

That mirrors substantial growth in the number of cases statewide.

Individuals on food stamps in N.C., monthly average
Source: USDA

In the last five years, the number of households receiving food stamps in North Carolina rose by about 55 percent to about 786,000.

The effect is the same even when adjusted for population growth. About 17 percent of the state's residents receive food stamp benefits, compared to 12 percent in 2009.

That growth isn't surprising given the depth of the recession, Nichol said.

"That's exactly what the program is supposed to do, of course," he said. "When we hit tough economic times and the skids, the food stamp program is supposed to expand so the impacts of unemployment and poverty are ameliorated somewhat."

Yet despite the recent drop in the state's unemployment rate and other positive economic indicators, the number of recipients is still on the rise – albeit a much slower one.

According to a report released Feb. 20 by the USDA, there's always some lag between the fall of the unemployment rate and the decrease in food stamp demand. But given that the U.S. unemployment rate fell for a third consecutive year, the report said the increase in food stamp participation now bucks a historic trend.

"It suggests that the increase in employment growth hasn't been felt equally among the population," said Victor Oliveira, an agricultural economist at the USDA who authored the report.

Percentage of N.C. population in SNAP

Source: USDA, U.S. Census population estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Nichol said that, given the long and dramatic increase in unemployment in North Carolina and the rippling effect of food insecurity, it will take much longer for any recovery to trickle down to the 18 percent of the state population currently living in poverty.

"In theory, we've been in recovery," he said, "but we've had an explosion of poverty since 2008."

Given that most of the benefits of this better economy are the nation's top earners, it's not clear how long the lag will last.

"Now that we're in a period of recovery, I think it's an open question of when we can expect that recovery to be felt by people in the bottom of the income distribution," said Anna Gassman-Pines, an assistant professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

To compensate for the larger caseload, Wake County leaders approved a plan this month to hire 36 additional employees for their social services division, including 26 more case workers. But Wake County Assistant Human Services Director Liz Scott has pointed out that it takes several months to bring new workers up to speed on the new system.

That didn't help food stamp clients like Elizabeth Powell, a Wake County resident who waited more than four months to receive her benefits after recertifying in October.

Powell said she repeatedly called Wake County social services about her case, often getting nothing more than a voicemail message. She should have been among the cases cleared before the Feb. 10 USDA deadline, but Wake County officials weren't able to explain why she waited so long.

After WRAL News raised questions about her case last week, Powell said her case worker called the next day to tell her the benefits had been delivered.

"I'm hoping I'm not the only one in this situation, but I'm wondering," she said. "To me, it's such a farce."

Food banks hit hard

With no food assistance to contribute to the family, Powell said she turned to several different food pantries for help. From there, she could get a few staples such as bread and canned goods, maybe ground venison donated around the holidays.

But with so many people picking up donations, there's often not enough to go around.

"You're grateful for anything," Powell said. "But sometimes, anything's not enough."

Alan Briggs, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Food Banks, said this demand hasn't receded despite signs of recovery. The last few years have seen a 40 to 50 percent spike in the amount of food provided to needy residents through partner food pantries.

Given problems with NC FAST, a reduction of food stamp benefits in November, a federal shutdown and other factors, he said the food distribution increased 10 percent in both of the last two quarters of 2013.

"Even though we've been able to press our business partners and donors for [food] contributions, they're going out faster than ever," Briggs said. "When we talk to our partner food pantries, what we hear is they need more."

Sometimes that serious need means people go without.

After finding a zero balance on her card yet again last week, Poole was turned away from a food bank in Fuquay-Varina because she had been there less than a month earlier. They told her she could return in five days.

"I won't have the gas because I used it to get there," Poole said.

Continued frustration for waiting clients

Food stamp clients stuck waiting say often what causes the most anxiety are the ripple effects of missing benefits. For some, that means tough choices between paying bills and putting meals on the table.

Poole said she's particularly worried about the consequences of not taking adequate care of her husband.

"If the state comes in and says, 'Well you ain't got the food in the house to keep him going,' do I get in trouble because I didn't keep food in the house?" she said.

She's already complained about the delay to the governor's office. She did the same thing when her benefits were late in August, but the county still took three weeks to get her recertification processed.

Despite her frustration, Poole said she knows there are others in worse shape. When her family goes hungry, at least they know why.

"We don't have kids, but when you've got babies that don't understand there's not enough food to feed them?" she said. "That's not right."

Regardless of the reason, she and many others say they're tired of waiting.

"I don't understand how and why they can't get it figured out," Poole said. "If they ain't got the right people, hire the right people."


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  • JustOneGodLessThanU Mar 5, 2014

    Yes, let’s go after those working the system and taking the *most* government money.

    Private Corportations.

    For example, Wal-mart uses more welfare than any single entity in the U.S. They don’t pay their workers enough to survive, so you and me pickup their slack. (The average Mal-Wart store requires over $400,000 in government assistance for its employees, but many stores require over $900,000 in annual government handouts...per store, per year. Meanwhile, the Walton family is worth over $100 Billion.)

    So, do you really want to reduce government outlays?...or do you want to punish the working poor?



  • JustOneGodLessThanU Mar 4, 2014

    View quoted thread

    1- How do you know who is shacking up with whom? Yes, it's possible, but what are the facts?

    2- Please report your coworker to the Medicaid fraud hotline. You can stay anonymous. If everyone did this, we'd squelch much of the fraud that exists. 1-800-HHS-TIPS (1-800-447-8477) http://www.cms.gov/Medicare-Medicaid-Coordination/Fraud-Prevention/FraudAbuseforConsumers/Report_Fraud_and_Suspected_Fraud.html

  • funnything Mar 1, 2014

    it is unfortunate to have so many cold hearted individuals commenting here. no wonder we have become the laughing stock of the nation. shame on all of you. feed a hungry person today, tomorrow it could be you.

  • Ashley Moore Mar 1, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Education is the way out. Teach the younger generation to care about education, and then maybe we can stop the cycle.

    Go to Johnston County. Learned helplessness and disregard for education has run rampant... And it is not the teachers' fault like we all wish to believe.

  • HappyFeet Feb 28, 2014

    It is a shame all the negativity that comes out. It's like a preschool class arguing over play dough. I know with my experience with this system it has not been easy for my family to apply. I have a family of 6 & yes I work 2 jobs and am still only allowed 26 hours combined by my employers. Yet for recertification here we sit for 3-4 months to get any food help. Their solution is to seek food banks, etc. You can only visit these 1 time per month. I can't afford to take any precious time off to meet these food bank open hours and drive. Not to mention I have a spouse that did have a great job with the state for 20 years before the state budget cuts that cut his job, but the system kept a person he trained for less money. After 300+ applications! he us always told he is over qualified and he is never considered. He wants to work, we both are college educated and have always worked, we are not working the system. People need to think how it is to walk in other's shoes.

  • DontVote4LiarsCheatsOrThieves Feb 28, 2014

    View quoted thread


    When was the last time you tried to find a job in the US.

    There are FOURTEEN MILLION jobs less right now then there were in the spring of 2008. That's FOURTEEN MILLION jobs less for an unemployed person to apply for - in the US alone.

  • notexactly Feb 28, 2014

    ur are exactly right IDS

    That is why the system is so flawed. I worked my way up from minimum wage they can to. I mean there are plenty of jobs that start out above minimum wage now. You may have to work at night and weekends but hey. I did it back then ( still do it now). But the younger generations have been taught to get on the system instead of doing the hard work to actually move up the ladder to success. So why would they want to work anywhere for less than 13 0r 14 per hour when they can get that or more from the various free systems. You figure up all that is available and it will easily be more than 10 per hour. But instead the libs say oh its because the mini. wage is to low. Nope not at all, when the mini,. wage goes up so do the rates for the freebies. if the poverty level is 23k now it will go up as mini. wage goes up. so they will still qualify for the hand outs and the libs will wont more and find another excuse to blame it on. The cycle of life continues

  • notexactly Feb 28, 2014

    get your IDS

    hey I am with you. I was just stating that most of our taxes most likely goes to the part of the constitution that states what the government is SUPPOSED to do and that is to provide for the national defense. Which I totally agree with. See the problem with libs is they think the government is supposed to do everything for us and that is very incorrect. Like our founding fathers clearly set forth. There is so much waste now from both parties it really is almost to the point of no return. But the libs want more and blame only the other side for everything they don't agree with. The pot of takers are about equal to the pot of makers. When will the scales tip and what or who will the libs blame when there are more takers than makers. I guess we can just keep printing money like the dems have been doing for the last 5 years . But the smart folks know that this is going to cause some serious problems in the near future.

  • workingforthosethatwont Feb 28, 2014

    maybe they should be finding a job instead of a handout.

  • Get your IDs Feb 28, 2014

    View quoted thread

    I saw a chart recently on what each state pays a person per hour in unemployment benefits, and the majority of the states pay right around 12-13 bucks an hour or so. I dont think raising the minimum wage to that is going to incetivize people to go back to work until they absolutely have too, then again Pelosis said now that people have Barrycare they dont have to work at all.