February 22, 2010

Bread for the City at City Council Oversight Hearing: DC's Families Need Change

Last week, Bread for the City attorney Stacy Braverman testified before the D.C. Council at its oversight hearing on the Department of Human Services (DHS). DHS provides many services to the District’s homeless population and also oversees public benefits programs including food stamps, TANF, Interim Disability Assistance, and medical insurance. Stacy spoke about the need for better training of DHS frontline staff, and about the importance of finally expanding the amount of DC families who are eligible for food stamps.

The executive director of DHS, Clarence Carter, was on hand at the hearing to address some of the concerns of the councilmembers and the many witnesses who provided testimony. Mr. Carter’s testimony included some potentially good news for benefits recipients--including the news that DHS is hiring 20 more eligibility workers to cope with the long wait times at service centers, and a promise that the Food Stamp Expansion Act will be fully implemented by the end of March. It's a promise, however, that we've heard before.

Taped testimony of all the witnesses is available on the D.C. Council website. Abbreviated verbal remarks follow:

Good afternoon. My name is Stacy Braverman and I am a public benefits lawyer at Bread for the City. Today, I’d like to focus on the need for better training and organization at Income Maintenance Administration service centers in general, and the need for DHS to implement changes to the food stamp program as directed by the Food Stamp Expansion Act of 2009.

As Mr. Carter noted, there are more applicants and fewer IMA service center and staff. I visit the service centers often and rarely see the express lines or “all hands on deck” mentality he mentioned, but I look forward to those initiatives. Service centers need to be better organized and staff needs more training to cope, because right now files and paperwork are often lost and decisions are delayed beyond the requirements of DHS policy and federal law.

For example, my client Mr. F had trouble requesting benefits at the Taylor Street service center. I accompanied him on a return visit and we waited for six hours before he could apply. Mr. F forgot to bring his pay stubs to the service center, so he waited for several more hours the following week to drop them off. When over a month passed and Mr. F hadn’t heard from IMA, I called the service center. A supervisor said she could tell from the computer that he had brought in his pay stubs, but said that his income was not entered into the system and the documents had been lost. Her only suggestion was to have Mr. F return to the service center another time, missing work, and wait again.

Part of the reason crowds at service centers are so large is because it is nearly impossible to reach staff by phone. Phone numbers printed on notices sent to customers often direct to other employees, or to full voicemail boxes. The voicemail system at the Taylor Street Service Center was broken for approximately a month this winter, and I haven’t been able to reach anyone at the Ft. Davis Service Center for weeks. When you do leave a message, it is rarely returned in the promised 24 hours—or at all.

Even when customers do get to speak with an eligibility worker, they often receive incorrect information. For example, my client Ms. T went to the Ft. Davis service center and was told she couldn’t receive TANF because one of her children got SSI. Another client, Mr. Q, was denied medical assistance because he couldn’t get a termination letter from his former employer. And Ms. B was told that her young grandchildren were ineligible for food stamps because of their legal immigration status. Eligibility rules for IMA benefits can be complicated, and these customers all actually qualified for benefits and got them with the help of attorneys. However, countless low-income District residents leave service centers without crucial safety-net benefits, and may never learn they were wrongly deprived. IMA staff need more training in program rules, they should be encouraged to look to the policy manual or to supervisors when they have questions, and they need to promptly and willingly remedy problems when they occur.

Of course, many people who apply for benefits are given the correct information about their eligibility, and some of them are denied food stamps because they do not qualify under the current rules. However, more of them will be able to receive this crucial safety-net benefit once DHS implements the Food Stamp Expansion Act of 2009. This law expanded categorical eligibility for food stamps to households earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level, so they could receive benefits without having to pass certain income and asset tests. It also created a Heat and Eat initiative that leverages federal energy assistance funds to increase the food stamp benefits many households would receive. The Council passed this bill last summer, and we originally heard that DHS would modify its computer system and enact the changes on October 1, 2009. When that date passed, we heard the changes would come in January, then March 15th—and today Mr. Carter has promised “the end of March.”

I have spoken with many people who will be eligible for food stamps as soon as these changes are implemented, like Mr. Q, whose employer went bankrupt and laid off all its workers. Like Ms. N, who struggles to make ends meet with Social Security Disability Insurance as her only income. And Ms. C, who spends nearly half her unemployment benefits on COBRA so she can continue to get medical treatment for her Multiple Sclerosis; after that and her rent, she struggles to buy food.

Implementing the Council’s changes will bring more federal funds to the District, which supports local grocery stores and farmers’ markets. It would reduce the burden on food pantries and other service providers, who are facing increasing demands. It would simplify the food stamp application process, leading to greater efficiency at the service centers. And for the people who are most affected by DHS’ delay in implementing these changes—people who worked and then became unemployed or disabled; people working part-time or minimum wage jobs; and those with severe housing, utility, medical, or child care expenses—it could help avert catastrophe.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

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