Editorial | The needy should not be kept waiting

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Monday.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey should be ashamed to be among the worst states in the nation in meeting federal rules by getting food stamps to the needy within 30 days.

Their bureaucratic delays create more hardships for families struggling to put food on the table.

A Phildadelphia Inquirer analysis found that New Jersey processes food-stamp applications within 30 days only about 74 percent of the time. Only Guam, Tennessee, Vermont, Hawaii and Connecticut are worse. Pennsylvania ranked 39th on a list of 53, meeting the federal timeliness requirement only 81 percent of the time.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has ordered both states to improve.

News of their inefficiency comes as the country endures a hunger crisis stretching from the cities to the suburbs. At least 47.7 million Americans get food stamps.

New Jersey’s demand for food stamps has jumped 107 percent since 2008, mainly due to the recession and the resulting sluggish economy. One applicant told antihunger advocates she waited six months to get her paperwork processed. Another gave up on benefits after standing in line for five hours.

Each county is responsible for processing food-stamp applications. But ultimately the state is held accountable for the 873,657 New Jerseyans who receive food stamps. It is worth noting that New York, which has more than 3.1 million SNAP recipients, processed nearly 91 percent of its benefit applications in the proper amount of time.

Some of New Jersey’s misguided procedures demonstrate clearly why that state takes so much time to approve food-stamp applications. For example, until recently, an applicant could only file paperwork with an assigned caseworker. There are other steps that New Jersey should take, such as picking up the pace to hire more caseworkers to replace an aging workforce and speeding up an overhaul of its computer system.

Pennsylvania would do a better job getting food stamps to the families that need them by focusing more attention on approving applications in a timely manner, rather than wasting time trying to weed out nonexistent abuse and fraud. The time it takes to administer an unnecessary “assets test” would be better spent processing applications, instead of adding to the workload of already stressed caseworkers.

More than 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receive food stamps, but more than 20 percent of children in the state don’t get the sustenance they need on a regular basis.

When it comes to aid for the needy, the commonwealth too often moves at a snail’s pace. It has also been slow in processing heating-assistance applications and it has been routinely late with unemployment payments.

The national hunger crisis adds to the urgency for Congress to pass a farm bill that includes adequate funding for SNAP. A House version of the legislation cutting SNAP by 3 percent to reduce the federal deficit would be a severe blow to poor families.

Meanwhile, states unduly delaying benefits must do better.