NJ Spotlight

Anti-Hunger Advocates Fear Impact Of Slow Handling Of Food-Stamp Applications

End of 'Heat and Eat' program and possible cuts in federal funding frustrate state legislators

NJ Spotlight — Tuesday, September 23, 2014

By Andrew Kitchenman

New Jersey stands to lose up to $310 million in federal funding due to the state's slow performance in processing applications for food stamps, as well as Gov. Chris Christie's veto of a move to continue combining home energy assistance with eligibility for the program.

The expectation that the food stamp program may be reduced at a time when the state is still struggling economically has left anti-hunger advocates and Democratic legislators fuming.

Both the poor state's performance — New Jersey has ranked next-to-last in processing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications — and Christie's veto of a bill that would continue state participation in the "Heat and Eat" program were criticized at a legislative hearing yesterday.

Federal officials have informed the state that it could lose a share of the roughly $140 million it receives from the federal government, which covers half of the total operating cost for the SNAP program — the other half is covered by the state and county governments. That's because the state has been unable to process applications within the 30-day window required by federal law.

Assembly Human Services Chairwoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) expressed frustration over delays in implementing a costly new computer system — the Consolidated Assistance Support System, or CASS — and that it still isn't operating after five years. The lack of a new system has contributed to the delays in processing food-stamp applications.

For their part, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services said the state has submitted a corrective action plan to the federal government to improve the processing times and is awaiting federal approval.

New Jersey residents also stand to lose an additional $170 million in SNAP benefits because of Christie's decision to no longer link Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) eligibility and SNAP participation. The Heat and Eat program allowed anyone receiving LIHEAP to also receive enhanced SNAP benefits.

A recent federal change to the program required states to increase the amount that families must receive in LIHEAP aid to also be eligible for the enhanced food stamps. While a state bill would have made the change, Christie vetoed it.

In vetoing the bill, Christie cited a letter from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to congressional critics of the program, in which she said that the aid shouldn't go to families that have no energy expenses. Christie said the state would have violated federal law by allowing families that haven't demonstrated that they pay home energy costs to participate in the program. Supporters of the program argue that Christie misinterpreted Sebelius' letter, and noted that 10 of 13 other states participating in Heat and Eat continue to participate even after the change in the program.

AARP New Jersey Associate State Director Brian McGuire said the end of Heat and Eat would affect 160,000 families, costing them an average of $90 per month in enhanced SNAP benefits.

"This disproportionately affects older folks and people with disabilities," McGuire said, adding that, without Heat and Eat, many people would see their SNAP benefits cut to $15 per month.

McGuire said that the state would only have to spend an additional $3 million for these residents to receive the $170 million in enhanced SNAP benefits.

Food-stamp advocates said the combination of eliminating Heat and Eat and the state's chronic problems processing food stamp applications is hurting many low-income residents.

"New Jersey has one of the worst records in the nation for processing SNAP applications, causing unnecessary hardship and forcing hungry residents to stay hungry longer," said Ann Vardeman, an organizer for New Jersey Citizen Action.

Assemblywoman Cleopatra G. Tucker (D-Essex) said neither county welfare offices, which process the SNAP applications, nor the state has taken responsibility for the chronic application-processing delays.

"How do you think somebody is going to survive without getting the assistance that they need?" Tucker said.

Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, said bringing CASS online could help reduce the delays. But it's not clear when that will occur.

LaTourette also said food banks wouldn't be able to compensate for the loss of the Heat and Eat program.

"Other states are doing it," LaTourette said of continuing the program. "There's a way to do it. Where there's a will, there's a way — that's pretty much the bottom line."

Diane Riley, advocacy director for the Hillside-based Community FoodBank of New Jersey, said state and county workers are overwhelmed with food stamp applications. When her agency tries to help people people apply, it is frequently unable to get a state or county worker on the phone to answer simple questions that could greatly speed up the application process.

Communications Workers of America legislative and political director Seth Hahn said the state should standardize how counties handle applications.

"There's a disconnect, because everyone has their own little fiefdom going on," he said.

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