Wake Forest, N.C. — Thousands of Wake County families continue to wait up to three months for food stamps almost a year after the county's Division of Social Services started processing claims on a new state computer system.
The NC FAST system has been plagued by what state officials call "glitches" for months, which have backlogged the system. Officials said managing benefits cases in NC FAST is also more labor-intensive, bogging things down even further as staff tries to learn the new system.
Jodie Mason and Jonathan Harvell haven't had any food stamp benefits since February and have been living off his wages as a pizza delivery driver.
"They keep telling us it's going to take a little bit longer, take a little big longer," Mason said Tuesday. "I understand that (they're having computer problems), but we need food, you know. We need to survive. We need to feed our daughter."
Liz Scott, assistant director for Wake County DSS, said the department "will significantly reduce" its case backlog in the next two months. The agency has added 40 temporary staffers – and plans to hire more – and has full-time employees putting in overtime to address the situation.
"We have processes in place to address the most overdue situations quickly," Scott said in an email to WRAL News.
Mason and Harvell said they are squeaking by with financial help from their parents, an understanding landlord and food from a local pantry. But the delays in obtaining their food stamp benefits has made daily life frustrating.
"It's been so rough to try and put together meals, to decide whether we should buy food or put gas in the car," Mason said.
"Our insurance is behind. Our power bill is perpetually behind, cable, all of our bills," Harvell said.
He continues to look for extra work – he was laid off from a job at a computer repair shop – while Mason takes classes at Wake Technical Community College – she eventually hopes to do research – and cares for the couple's 2-year-old daughter.
"A lot of people are saying that people who are on food stamps are lazy, and it's not true. It's absolutely not true," she said.
Scott said Wake County officials have referred many families to area food banks for help until the NC FAST problems can be fixed.
"We have also partnered with the United Way to contribute additional funds to the food pantries, as this has caused such an increase in demand," she said.
State Department of Health and Human Services officials declined to answer questions about the continued problems with NC FAST, saying only that more than 160 agency workers are helping counties address the problems and that the agency "is very concerned when anyone doesn’t receive needed benefits on time."
Next month, counties will start to use NC FAST to process Medicaid applications, which Scott said could cause even more problems.
"I anticipate that Medicaid staff will experience the same learning curve that Food Stamp staff did. They will be slower at the beginning as they learn the system," she said.
Update: Harvell said that DSS notified him on Sept. 19 that the family's food stamps benefits card would be arriving in a week and that he and Mason also would receive about $2,400 in back benefits to make up for the six months they were without them.