For anyone who has sat in the waiting room of a welfare office, or spent day after day trying to get an actual caseworker on the phone, it's not a shock to hear that Pennsylvania now ranks among the worst in the nation in food stamp processing. The fact that the federal government is now reprimanding Pennsylvania for its poor performance should be a wake-up call and a huge embarrassment. Yet the Corbett administration is essentially just shrugging its shoulders.
Since the 2008 recession the number of Americans experiencing food insecurity and having difficulty putting food on the table has grown. The number receiving food stamps has doubled to 50 million. In Allegheny County it's now one in seven of us.
The members of Congress seeking to cut food stamp funding like to trade on an image of food stamp recipients as lazy, drug addicted, irresponsible criminals. That couldn't be further from the truth. The vast majority of food stamp participants (nearly 90 percent) are in households containing children, seniors or the disabled. The vast majority of food stamp households with children (nearly 90 percent) are working families.
But they're underemployed and underpaid. Jobs are down. Wages are low and not keeping up with rising costs of living. So what do Pennsylvanians in need do? They turn to the main government program that's supposed to make sure they don't go hungry. And they wait. And they wait. And they wait.
Last year saw the highest food stamp caseloads on record. Meanwhile, state budget cuts to the Department of Public Welfare have steadily shrunk the number of caseworkers by 14 percent over the past decade. The remaining caseworkers complain that the processing system the state paid hundreds of millions to Deloitte Consulting LLP to develop is rife with errors and malfunctioning -- problems that have still not been addressed since it was put in place a year ago.
As if chronic understaffing and poor resources weren't bad enough, in 2012, Gov. Tom Corbett decided to resurrect the food stamp asset test. That's right: In the context of increasing poverty, increasing hunger and a shocking rejection rate of one in three applicants, he imposed rules to make it harder for those in need to get food stamps. Despite a nationwide bipartisan trend to do away with asset tests, Mr. Corbett likes the idea of cutting off food stamp access to poor people with even modest amounts of savings.
So how is eligibility now determined? More forms. Your current bank statements, even if your bank account was closed months ago. Registration for your one and only car, even though the asset test covers only the value of additional vehicles. More hoops to jump through, more screens for the caseworker to click through, more waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
DPW spokeswoman Anna Bale has been quoted as saying, "I don't think the asset test is slowing things down." Her statement is hard to swallow. At Just Harvest, we assist families who are desperate in their attempts to get their food stamp applications finalized and can't figure out why it's taking so long.
And why can't they? According to a study we conducted this past spring with student volunteers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, it's because when you call DPW offices -- and call, and call, and call -- nobody answers. Or you just get voice mail. Or you hear an automated message about high call volumes and full voice mails. Or you get put on hold for nearly an hour or more, only to then be disconnected.
Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad if behind the curtain, food stamp applications at DPW were proceeding smoothly. But this isn't just a communications problem.
Our study found nearly 30 percent of the surveyed food stamp participants had experienced benefit interruptions due to delays in paperwork processing. They went hungry while their papers sat in an overworked DPW county assistance office.
You can find the rest of the survey results at justharvest.org.
Is there any other government agency that could provide such horrible customer service and get away with it? State liquor stores are open evenings and weekends. But for poor people asking for food, the response is too often silence or hold music.
If this were the fire department, can you imagine the public reaction? The student loan program? People would be outraged. Or the film office not picking up the phone when big studios call to get their tax credits? State legislators would be swiftly investigating. The office that handles gun permit applications? The National Rifle Association would be all over the airwaves.
Unfortunately, poor people don't have million-dollar lobbyists. But they do have the sympathy of millions.
It's time for us all to be vocal about the values we want our communities and our commonwealth to uphold. Shouldn't our tax dollars be helping to put food on the table for the most vulnerable? Let's call our governor and state legislators and ask them. At least they'll answer the phone. Whether they listen is up to us.
Emily Cleath is communications coordinator for Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that addresses issues of hunger and poverty (justharvest.org).