A former nurse and a grandmother, Ms. J spoke evenly as she related her experience participating in the city’s food stamps program – but the frustration of this Manhattan resident prickled through as she recalled the first time she applied for food stamps in New York City more than a decade ago.
She had gathered her two children and one grandchild and fled from her abusive husband in Texas, leaving behind her $50,000-a-year career as a nurse and the comfortable lifestyle it afforded. It took “forever” to process her food stamps application in her new home, she said.
“It takes 900 years for them to say you don’t have this piece of paper,” said Ms. J., who lives in Kips Bay and wanted to remain anonymous because of ongoing struggles to receive public benefits. Food stamp applicants have to supply extensive documentation about work, education resources and more. Those eligible generally have gross incomes of 130 percent of the poverty line – totaling annual income of $22,332 for a household of three – or less. Processing is done by the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA).
Ms. J still uses food stamps as she now raises two grandchildren and is disabled from a work-related injury. She has to recertify for food stamps every several months. “The process seems to take just as long" as it did the first time, she said.
Ms. J is not just exaggerating. Many applications are not being processed within 30 days of the application date, or five days for the neediest applicants, although these time frames are mandated by state and federal law. A court settlement approved by U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet on April 16 orders an end to such noncompliance for applications filed at non-cash assistance (NCA) centers, effective immediately. With the number of NCA food stamp applicants ratcheting up – HRA reports a 9.4 percent increase between March 2007 and March 2008– this settlement couldn’t be timelier.
Filed by the New York Legal Assistance Group, the Urban Justice Center, and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) in June 2004, the class-action suit Williston v. Eggleston culminated with the state agreeing to supervise the city’s compliance. Not only will the city provide detailed quarterly reports of application processing at each NCA food stamp center, but the federal court has continuing jurisdiction for four years and can extend this period if the city fails to comply with the provisions of the settlement. In addition, the city must post and maintain signs in food stamp centers informing the public of their right to apply for food stamps and the time frames for processing the applications.
“The city and state have taken this issue seriously and displayed commitment to getting the benefits that families need. Nothing is more fundamental than nutrition,” said Lynn Lu, staff attorney at NCLEJ.
Additionally, food stamps are funded by federal money – and localities are always eager to employ federal funding rather than local dollars where possible.
When asked what caused the delays in processing applications, HRA spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio pointed to increased workload while HRA was transitioning into more effective ways of processing applications, which were completely implemented in February. The increased workload was caused by HRA’s recent initiatives of shortening applications, extending hours at food stamp centers, and streamlining services and installing information kiosks at food stamp offices in Model Job centers, Brancaccio said.
A major change is that most participants are no longer welfare recipients. The Independent Budget Office (IBO) reports this as the result of a “shift in policy to encourage food stamp use combined with continuing declines in the number of individuals on public assistance.” People once on public assistance are now attaining low-paying jobs and applying for food stamps at NCA centers. Still, experts estimate that far more people are eligible for food stamps in the city than are applying.
“Due to the changes we have made to improve access to the food stamp program, the caseload for the offices that are the subject of the Williston lawsuit have grown to the highest level ever. This growth has created increased processing work,” Brancaccio said. Now, the majority of the caseload is non-welfare recipients who file at NCA centers. But the total caseload is 1,127,000 – only a slight increase from 1.1 million in Dec. 2006.
Earlier this year, HRA still was failing to meet the state and federal 30-day deadlines in 8 percent of cases citywide, as shown in an agency JobStat report. To Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, that failure should elicit as much outrage as firefighters not responding to 8 percent of calls in a middle-class neighborhood. “One in 12 people cannot get desperately needed help,” Berg said.
The situation was severe enough for lawyers to sue HRA, headed at that time by Commissioner Verna Eggleston, and then-commissioner of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Robert Doar. (Eggleston left HRA in Dec. 2006 for the Bloomberg Family Foundation, and Doar left Albany to take her place in Jan. 2007.) The nearly four-year litigation process began with attempts by the city and state to dismiss the case. Finally in 2006, negotiations for settlement began. Despite the suit's length, Lu still considers suing the most appropriate form of advocacy in this case. “One of the advantages of having court oversight of an issue is that there is a mechanism of enforcing compliance with an existing law," she said. "It is a way of assuring that not only now but in the future, state and federal rules will be enforced."
That's welcome news to Ms. J. “Dealing with the social service system is a full time occupation; it’s more taxing than working five 15-hour shifts as a nurse like I used to,” she says.
The settlement comes at a time when more households across the country are participating in the food stamps program. The Congressional Budget Office reported a nationwide rise in food stamp enrollment from 26.5 million last year to 27.8 million this year – probably driven by rising unemployment and fuel and food prices.
In the city, the story is a bit different. While the nation’s unemployment rate was 5.1 percent in March, the city’s was 4.5 percent. According to a Fiscal Brief by the IBO this January, the city’s economic success has contributed to stagnant levels of participation in the food stamp program over recent years. It reports that the caseload increased from 798,000 in 2001 to over 1 million in 2005, but continues to remain at that level.
Under the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance's Working Families Initiative, the city set out to increase food stamp enrollment by 62,000 in 2008. HRA efforts to reach this goal, coupled with a 16 percent cut in state funding of food pantries, soup kitchens or food banks outlined in Gov. Paterson's recently approved budget, may encourage people to turn to federally funded food stamps.
With the settlement agreement in place, HRA promises to handle any increase in applicants. “The city is fully committed to adhering to the established time frames and we believe the automation and other efficiencies we have introduced will help us reach these goals,” said Brancaccio.