January 19, 2010

Log-Jammed at IMA

[Cross-posted to the DC Food For All.]

Imagine lining up at dawn to enter a room where you are not allowed to eat or drink anything. If you leave to go to the bathroom, you risk being sent to the back of the line. Imagine waiting for eight hours, only to be told that you cannot be helped and need to return for more of the same tomorrow.

As described in today’s Washington Post, this situation is common at the District’s Income Maintenance Administration (IMA) service centers, where people go to apply for and resolve problems with benefits like Food Stamps, medical insurance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Two of the seven service centers were closed last spring, and the remaining five are struggling with reduced staff and increasing caseloads.

The impact of this situation goes far beyond inconvenience.

Take for example a woman who called Bread for the City last month for help applying for benefits. She is disabled, and sitting or standing for long periods of time is very painful. During her long wait at the service center, she said she frequently asked IMA employees if she could submit her application and come back another day for an interview, or if she could be moved up in the line. Hours later she gave up; she told us she'd become so ill from waiting that she had to go straight to the emergency room. Her application was ultimately accepted – but at the cost of her health, her time, and the expensive medical care she received.

I’ve also seen it with my own eyes. I recently accompanied Mr. E to an IMA service center, because he had been unsuccessful in previous attempts to apply for medical assistance and food stamps. As a result, Mr. E’s painful toothache kept him from sleeping, his one-year-old son missed checkups, and they relied on relatives to help pay for food and transportation to Mr. E’s job and his son’s day care. I learned all this during the six hours that Mr. E and I waited to be seen. Our meeting was largely successful, although Mr. E had to return the following week and waited several hours to hand in one document he had forgotten. Mr. E and his son should soon get the benefits for which they qualify, plus back benefits for the months in which his application was improperly rejected. However, spending multiple days at the IMA service center required Mr. E to lose wages—and lose favor in the eyes of his boss.

This is an aspect that I think is especially worth highlighting: many people seeking food stamps and other public benefits are employed, or searching for employment, or in school. Waiting for hours or days to apply for benefits, or even just to update their documents, seriously interferes with their ability to keep a job or obtain one.

To be clear, the responsibility doesn’t lie entirely at the feet of the IMA service centers. Even as food stamp enrollment has increased by 22%, the city has cut IMA’s eligibility staff by 99 employees in the last two years. The Washington Post article quotes an anonymous staffer saying: "The community is suffering, the staff is overwhelmed and the people are getting angry. We have staff who have to go upstairs and cry. . . . We do the best we can."

Bread for the City is advocating for the city to increase funding for IMA, to hire more staff members and better train and supervise the ones they currently employ (among other needed improvements). Our clients cannot prepare for, seek, and maintain employment when it is a full-time job just to get the assistance they need to survive.


T.Hill said...

Has this organization looked into using the Americorps program? Although it is not a long term solution, utilizing trained volunteers may get them through this economic downturn.
I love this blog and everything your organization stands for...keep up the good fight!

Erin Garnaas-Holmes said...

@ T.Hill: That could actually be a good idea. Bread for the City employs the services of about 9 full-time volunteers from Americorps and other similar Volunteer Corps, and they provide cheap but highly-valued labor, and they bring wonderful attitudes and fresh ideas to the workplace.

The IMA is technically eligible to apply for Americorps, as a local government agency, but I don't think that it would be a very... enticing opportunity for potential volunteers. Since volunteers would probably have the choice of either working in a more exciting setting and/or working for an actual wage, I don't think many people would opt for working at a place like the IMA for peanuts.

Nevertheless, in an economic environment like this, more people might consider Americorps, with its guaranteed job and health care coverage, and using Americorps would help the IMA save money, so it's a good suggestion.