Over half of New York City food stamp applicants are forced to wait for their benefits to arrive as staff at the understaffed Human Resources Administration fail to keep pace with demand. The state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has declined to issue a waiver that would relieve the backlog.
This holiday season, tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers could go without food stamps amid a staffing shortage at the city’s social services agency—and state officials with the power to ease the bureaucratic crisis have so far declined to take action.
Over half of New York City food stamp applicants are left waiting for the crucial benefits as staff at the city’s beleaguered Human Resources Administration (HRA)—down 20 percent of its workforce and facing a fresh round of budget cuts ordered by Mayor Eric Adams—struggle to process documents and issue approvals. As City Limits has reported, the delays have forced parents to pawn jewelry, take out loans or incur mounting credit card debt to feed their children, and the problem is only getting worse.
HRA is supposed to review applications and electronically deliver food stamps, formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, within 30 days. That timely processing rate, considered a “critical indicator” of agency performance in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, has plummeted from about 92 percent in fiscal year 2021 to just over 60 percent last year to now 46.3 percent, officials said.
HRA has requested a waiver from the state that would temporarily suspend recertification requirements for food stamp recipients so that agency staff can tackle the massive backlog of new applications, including 50,000 in October alone. But New York State’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) has declined to relax the rules, even after issuing a similar waiver in the early days of the COVID pandemic, when tens of thousands of newly unemployed New Yorkers began applying for food stamps.
OTDA, run by the city’s former social services deputy Daniel Tietz, said it does not trust HRA to process the applications correctly, putting the state at risk of penalties and lost federal funding.
OTDA spokesperson Anthony Farmer said the agency won’t step in until HRA staffs up (HRA had more than 2,600 vacant positions as of Oct. 31, according to records shared with City Limits last month by the city’s Independent Budget Office).
“We are committed to working with New York City to help them overcome the processing issues they continue to encounter,” Farmer said. “This assistance, however, requires the city to take proactive steps to ensure they have adequate staff on-hand to process applications in a timely manner and in accordance with long-standing federal standards.”
The federal government audits a sample of SNAP applications to ensure approved households are not receiving a higher-than-allowed amount based on their income. Roughly 1.7 million New York City residents in about 1 million households receive some food stamps, with values varying by income and family size.
Attorneys and case managers working with food stamp applicants who are forced to wait for their benefits say that OTDA’s reasoning makes no sense when New Yorkers are suffering.
“It seems like the state is more concerned about the error rate than about hundreds of thousands of people not eating because of the delays,” said Adriana Mendoza, benefits supervisor at the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center. “The city is in crisis, and while they must take responsibility for fixing this, the state denying the waivers is not helping.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that the state would use federal funds to increase food stamp amounts for all recipients, but Mendoza said that will have little immediate impact for families who are cut off or left waiting for the benefits to arrive.
Kathleen Kelleher, a staff attorney in the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Law Reform Unit, said she found the state’s response to the crisis “shocking.”
“We’re talking about benefits for real people,” Kelleher said. “I don’t think it’s reasonable for them not to intervene.”
At a Dec. 15 City Council hearing, Kelleher said she has been working with food stamp recipients for more than 30 years and has never seen the same magnitude of delays. She urged OTDA to issue the recertification waivers, create a corrective action plan for HRA and publish specific data on new applicants, recertifications and delays across New York City and state.
“If they’re not issuing these 100 percent-federally-funded benefits, then they are messing up New York City’s recovery from COVID,” she said. “Low-income workers rely on SNAP for their survival. People need their benefits now.”
The city’s Department of Social Services, which oversees HRA, said it will continue to work to process “a record number” of SNAP applications, even without state assistance to ease the workload.
“We are using every tool at our disposal to continue to effectively support vulnerable New Yorkers who are still very much reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic,” a spokesperson said, adding that the agency would “welcome the State’s input on helping identify joint solutions as part of our shared mission to serve and support New Yorkers every which way we can.”
SNAP is considered the country’s most vital anti-hunger program, providing support to about 41.5 million participants in 2021. The program also has an important economic impact because recipients typically spend the benefits at local grocers.
Food stamps are deposited onto a debit card that recipients can use to purchase food at grocery stores, bodegas and farmers markets. Applicants already approved for SNAP benefits have to recertify them at regular intervals, and processing delays mean households can abruptly lose access to funds they rely on.
That has often been the case for a father of seven children in Midwood named Simon, who asked not to use his last name for fear of judgment by neighbors in his conservative, tight-knit community. He said he is forced to submit the same documents over and over again to prove his family’s eligibility.
“What is this business of constantly showing the same birth certificates and social security information every six months? What is the point,” he said. “I don’t get different kids every six months. They put everyone through hell. It’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of resources and it doesn’t accomplish anything.”
Simon, a freelance artist, said the recertification requirements are overly punitive for New Yorkers trying to make ends meet.
“I’m not doing this because I want to do this. I have no choice,” he said. “People on this program need the help and aren’t getting the help.”
Bronx resident Bianca Herrera, 26, said she spent more than a year trying to get her family’s food stamps back after an HRA administrative error cut them off. Herrera, a single mother with two young daughters, said she repeatedly tried to recertify but was ignored until Safety Net Project case managers helped her get her benefits back.
“That all took a toll on me. It was truly devastating wondering how I was going to be able to buy food every day,” she said. “That was a constant worry. It was insane.”
Several city, state and even federal lawmakers have begun to seek resolutions to the administrative crisis at HRA. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told City Limits she was “very concerned about the thousands of New Yorkers who are waiting for their SNAP benefits to come through.”
“This is a safety net program that’s meant to help people and improve their lives and people should not be forced to sell treasured valuables in order to feed their families,” she said in a statement. She added that her office is working with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which runs SNAP, to “expedite the process, and help these families get the funds to put food on their table.”
The United States Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, said it was up to OTDA to issue recertification waivers.
Another problem is compounding the situation for low-income New Yorkers: Roughly 4,000 SNAP recipients have had their benefits stolen through skimming devices placed on card readers.
In a letter to Tietz on Thursday, Assembly Social Services Chair Linda Rosenthal and Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes urged OTDA to take aggressive action to reimburse the victims of the food stamp theft, and to relieve the administrative burden on HRA.
“With the rise of benefit theft and extreme delays in the processing of SNAP applications, it has become abundantly clear that the New York City Human Resources Administration is not equipped to manage these crises,” the two assemblymembers wrote. “[We] hope to see OTDA take quick action, as other states have done, to provide support to families in need.”