Timely processing rates plummeted to under 30 percent for cash assistance applications and under 40 percent for SNAP for the fiscal year ending in June, according to the latest Mayor’s Management Report.
New York City’s timely processing of cash and food assistance applications plunged to new lows last fiscal year, continuing a spiral Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has attributed to an ongoing pandemic spike in demand, as well as agency staffing shortages.
The Human Resource Administration (HRA) promptly worked through just 28.8 percent of cash assistance applications during the year that ended in June, down from 82.3 percent the year prior and north of 90 percent before that.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps, saw a slightly less dismal application processing rate of 39.7 percent, down from 60.1 percent the year prior and well below the city’s 90.6 percent target.
Katie Kelleher, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, bemoaned the collapse of a system that once worked efficiently. “New York City knew how to manage this—knew how to deliver benefits [on time],” she told City Limits.
While the COVID-19 pandemic put real strain on the system, the city has had years to adjust to a new reality where more people need to access the social safety net, she added: “This is the new caseload. It’s not going away.”
There were about 1.74 million New Yorkers receiving SNAP as of July, up from about 1.5 million in July 2019. The volume of cash assistance recipients was nearly 490,000 in July, according to DSS, up from about 332,900 in 2019.
Under federal and state law, all SNAP and cash assistance applications and recertifications must be processed by HRA, part of the Department of Social Services (DSS), within 30 days. Anything pending beyond that threshold is considered delayed.
“I have very few clients whose processing is done in the required time frame,” said Deborah Berkman, a supervising attorney with the Public Benefits Unit at New York Legal Assistance Group. “Many of my clients need to interview as part of their application and they cannot because a several-hour wait time is the norm.”
This is a major concern for families with children who are facing eviction in housing court, Berkman added, as they must activate cash assistance in order to receive help covering their rent. “Slow processing times lead to evictions,” she said.
The latest data, part of the annual Mayor’s Management Report released Friday, comes as the city races to comply with a federal court order to eliminate its backlogs for both SNAP and cash assistance by March 2024.
The injunction is part of a class action lawsuit filed in January by the Legal Aid Society and New York Legal Assistance Group, alleging that city officials were leaving New Yorkers without benefits to which they were entitled.
While the MMR data pertains to first-time benefit applications only, the lawsuit is aiming to eliminate recertification delays as well, for people seeking to renew their assistance. According to the city, pandemic-related recertification deadline waivers have expired, putting more pressure on the system as a whole.
A recertification delay can lead to a lapse in benefits—a dangerous situation for recipients like Diana Ramos, a leader with the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center. Ramos has Type 2 diabetes and has yet to receive her SNAP for September.
“I’m not eating properly, and I’m deathly afraid of my sugar bottoming out, and ending up in the hospital,” she told City Limits. Ramos likes to make protein-rich smoothies. But without SNAP, she has turned to powdered lemonade to keep her blood sugar up.
Recently, Ramos says she waited on hold with the city for six hours trying to sort out her benefits. “I can’t blame the HRA workers,” she said. “The anger needs to be sent to the people in charge—they need to do better.”
Court filings suggest that HRA has recently improved its processing for people who receive SNAP but not cash assistance—a category known as “SNAP-only.”
The agency says it has cut its SNAP-only application and recertification delays considerably—with a backlog of fewer than 800 as of the end of July—though Kelleher of Legal Aid said her team is in talks with the city about its methodology.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers who receive cash assistance continue to watch the deadline for timely processing come and go. Most of them also receive SNAP, but see their benefits processed on a separate, less-streamlined track from their “SNAP-only” counterparts.
The city has set a gradual timeline for improvement for these cases, according to an August court filing—27,800 overdue by the end of September, up to 29,700 by the end of November, and down to 4,200 by the end of February. HRA is on track so far to meet those benchmarks, Kelleher said.
According to the MMR, the timeliness threshold for some cash assistance applications decreased last fall from 45 days to 30 days, making a year-over-year comparison impossible.
But Kelleher said the city knew this adjustment was coming and should have been prepared. “The deadline is set by law,” she said. “They’re required to comply with it. It wasn’t a surprise.”
The MMR also attributes poor processing rates to an “unprecedented and continuing increase in applications” and “fewer staff due to attrition and retirements.”
In a further statement to City Limits, HRA said it saw more cash assistance applications in the last fiscal year than in any other at least since 2008, and noted the larger volume of benefit recipients this year compared to prior to the pandemic.
“Despite unprecedented challenges following the lifting of key pandemic-related supports and the highest volume of cash assistance applications since 2008, in [fiscal year 2023], on average NYC DSS-HRA helped more New Yorkers receive these critical benefits than in recent pre-pandemic years,” an agency spokesperson said.*
According to the MMR, HRA is also “taking aggressive action to fill critical vacancies, invest in technology and implement process improvements to improve timeliness.”
Between March and May, HRA reported hiring 127 people to assist with the SNAP-only program and 299 for its cash assistance track. And in June, the agency reported onboarding another 201 and 130 employees respectively, court documents show.
But staffing is still below pre-pandemic levels. As of July 6, just after the turn of the fiscal year, HRA had 10,853 full-time employees, compared to 12,528 in Dec. 2019. And earlier this month, Mayor Adams called for 5 percent spending cuts across agencies in the city’s financial plan, citing the cost of sheltering an influx of asylum seekers.
Berkman of New York Legal Assistance Group said austerity budgeting by the Adams Administration is to blame for her clients being left without food and cash assistance.
“When you don’t adequately fund the agencies they cannot keep up with the federal mandates,” Berkman said. “That’s it.”
To reach the reporter behind this story, contact Emma@citylimits.org. To reach the editor, contact Jeanmarie@citylimits.org.
*This story has been updated since publication with comment from HRA.