The Human Resources Administration (HRA) is promptly processing just 46.3 percent of applications for SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps, the agency told councilmembers at a committee hearing on the impact and cause of the bureaucratic delays. 

Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

Councilmember Diana Ayala, who heads the General Welfare committee, at Thursday’s hearing.

More than half all New York food stamps applicants are left waiting for their benefits to arrive, as critical administrative bottlenecks at the city’s social services agency worsen amid staff shortages and impending budget cuts, officials said Thursday.

The Human Resources Administration (HRA) is promptly processing just 46.3 percent of applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps, the agency’s Deputy Social Services Commissioner Jill Berry told councilmembers at a committee hearing on the impact and cause of the bureaucratic delays.

That rate of timely processing marked a striking decrease from an already dismal 60 percent during the 2022 fiscal year—down from 92 percent the previous year, according to the most recent Mayor’s Management Report. The annual charter-mandated review characterizes the timely processing of food stamp applications as a “critical indicator” of agency performance because it has a clear and immediate impact on New York City’s poorest residents.

“It’s really concerning because this is a safety net system and it’s intended to be there in times of crisis,” said Councilmember Diana Ayala, the chair of the General Welfare Committee.

The hearing was held a month after City Limits first reported on the mounting delays that force potentially hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to scramble for groceries or extra cash to feed their families. One woman who talked with City Limits described how she pawned jewelry to come up with money for her children. Another said even a three-day wait upended her family’s precarious finances for the rest of the month.

More than 1.7 million New Yorkers in 1 million households received food stamps last fiscal year, a slight decrease from 2021, according to the mayor’s report released in September. The number of SNAP applications surged during the pandemic, with unemployment reaching 16.2 percent in New York City as residents struggled to find consistent work with a living wage. HRA said the number of new applicants rose by more than 50 percent over the past two fiscal years compared to 2019, but the agency got a reprieve when the state and federal governments issued recertification waivers for food stamp recipients. That allowed HRA staff to concentrate on processing only new applications.

HRA officials blamed the deepening delays on the expiration of those recertification waivers as well as the sheer volume of new applications, with low-income New Yorkers continuing to feel the economic impacts of the COVID crisis. About 50,000 households applied for food stamps in October, 16 percent more than in October 2019, Berry said.

HRA is supposed to process the applications in less than a month, but most cases are taking longer and a serious staff shortage at the agency is only worsening the delays. One in five budgeted positions remain empty at HRA, with Mayor Eric Adams ordering a fresh round of cuts at the agency, Berry said.

“Despite the incredible work of our frontline staff, the unprecedented increase in application volume from the start of the pandemic and continuing through today, [we] haven’t been able to get to everything and we don’t take this lightly,” she said. “We know every individual is impacted when we are delayed.”

Berry said the mayor’s ordered cuts—a budget trimming measure known as a “Program to Eliminate the Gap,” or PEG—will not affect the agency’s ability to get people their food stamps and cash assistance because the positions are already empty.

“We are working closely with [the Office of Management and Budget] to ensure this vacancy reduction doesn’t interrupt any delivery service,” Berry said, adding that the agency continues to review resumes, hire staff and train them to handle applications.

But Councilmember Lincoln Restler said he had received information that HRA hired just 20 new staff members in November. Berry said the agency would have to get back to him with the exact number.

“When we have a 20 percent vacancy rate at HRA, we are failing the New Yorkers who depend on us the most,” Restler said. “I hope we can put all of the effort that you have put into such great initiatives over the years into hiring and that this administration won’t stop you from bringing in the people you need to fill these vacancies because vulnerable people are suffering.”

Councilmember Nantasha Williams questioned how cutting empty positions instead of filling them could possibly be “good practice” given the current emergency.

“You’re now subject to a decrease in your resources. How will that make your agency be more efficient in your work?” she said.

In addition to food stamp delays, cash assistance applications—small monthly payments to the lowest-income New Yorkers—are also slowing down. The agency is processing those applications promptly just 61.4 percent of the time, Berry said. That’s down from 82.3 percent last fiscal year, and 95.4 percent in the 2021 fiscal year, agency statistics show. More than 42,000 households applied for cash assistance in September.

On Sunday, Adams warned that a likely rise in the number of asylum-seekers heading to New York City could further erode social services, though most newly arrived immigrants do not qualify for food stamps, a federal program administered by states and municipalities.

Meanwhile, many food stamp recipients are dealing with another problem: pervasive theft via “skimming” devices on credit card readers. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand proposed legislation to reimburse households whose benefits were stolen.

But there is no federal measure to reinstate recertification waivers that would allow local municipalities, like New York City, to focus on new applications only. Berry said the agency is working with the state to seek new waivers.

The impact of the delays are apparent to food stamp applicants and recipients across the city. A Crown Heights mother named Thompson, who asked not to use her first name because she is a survivor of domestic violence, said she pawned an engagement ring and tablet to get cash to buy food for her family.

“It’s a lot of people going through this right now,” Thompson told City Limits last month. “They’re people who are pregnant, people who have kids, people who can’t make ends meet but they’re trying to.”

Bianca Herrera, a mother of two in The Bronx, said she spent a year trying to reopen her food stamp case after she was abruptly terminated. She said she was repeatedly denied or dismissed until finally winning an appeal last month.

HRA officials said the city issues retroactive benefits following delays, but Kathleen Kelleher, a staff attorney in the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Law Reform Unit, said that does not address the immediate need.

“People can’t eat retroactively,” she said during public testimony at Thursday’s hearing. Kelleher said she has been working with food stamp recipients for more than 30 years and has never seen a worse situation. She criticized the city’s hiring delays, saying it reveals a lack of urgency.

“What they plainly said is that they are violating the law,” Kelleher said. “They are not providing SNAP benefits under the federal standards in over 50 percent of cases. That is an outrage.”

Kelleher also demanded more information from HRA about the number of delayed recertifications. HRA officials repeatedly sidestepped questions around specific statistics not included in the most recent mayor’s management report.

“Every one of those cases is someone that’s not eating,” Kelleher said. “If it was another kind of service that people cared more about it would be solved by now.”