While the economy is suffering from a steady rise in food and gas prices, many states are relying heavily on the federal Food Stamp Program and putting forth the extra effort to obtain federally funded food stamps for those who are eligible. In fact, most states are reaching out to millions more who may not realize they are eligible or are reluctant to participate. However, that does not seem to be the case for the state of Texas as they continue to delay and deteriorate their eligibility and benefits enrollment services during these tough financial times, leaving their food stamp recipients hungry and frustrated.
Last week, the state of Texas received final approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials to expand the use of their divisive public assistance enrollment system, known as the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System, or TIERS. Nonetheless, the state's Health and Human Services Commissioner, Albert Hawkins, has denied the expansion. In the past, Hawkins has ignored the feds, such as in 2006 when he linked the launch of the Accenture call center network with an expansion of TIERS, and in early 2007 when the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) moved forward with an expansion of TIERS despite the glitches in the system. Moreover, on March 23, 2007, the feds denied HHSC's approval to expand the system after learning about their plans. However, now that the feds have given permission to the state to expand, Hawkins has decided to comply with a legislative request that the HHSC first establish and meet a series of goals before expanding the web-based computer system that is responsible for food stamp enrollment.
Texas has struggled to process food stamp cases as quickly as the 30-day time frame required by the federal government. Just in May 2008, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) approved an expansion of TIERS, but only to 22 percent of food stamp cases attributable to a series of application backlogs and too many approvals taking too long. Currently, 9 percent of cases are in TIERS. A month prior to that, in April 2008, only 49.2 percent of the state's food stamp applications processed were completed on time using TIERS as opposed to the 92.6 percent processed using the old computer system in the same period. In addition to the technical complexities with TIERS, the state has also been struggling with staff turnovers.
As a result of a new law requiring legislators to vigilantly inspect the state's work enrolling Texans in programs such as food stamps, the state legislation has created an oversight committee to retain supervision, hold HHSC accountable, and to guarantee a practical approach toward expanding TIERS. Thus, Hawkins has been asked to propose benchmarks later this summer to the oversight committee, such as ensuring that there is adequate staff trained in TIERS. Consequently, the state will not begin rollout in July 2008.
In 2003, the state set out to privatize enrollment in social services in an effort to improve access to state benefits by reducing operation and maintenance costs, and improving the accuracy and timeliness of eligibility and benefits. The intended goal of the web-based system and call centers was to bring efficiency to state benefit programs and make it easier for eligible Texans to get their food stamps and other benefits by submitting their applications by phone, fax, internet, and mail, rather than having to do them in person at HHSC local branch offices. Yet, five years have gone by and the results have been quite different as TIERS remains in the same debacle, manifested by technical difficulties, staffing shortages, and inadequate training of the private call center staff. Most importantly, the consequences of HHSC's mismanagement are causing needless hardships on Texans who are in desperate need of food stamps. As recently stated, about 2.3 million Texans are on food stamps. Nevertheless, given the history of TIERS, with continuous delays and its inability to maintain case records and/or process applications in a timely manner, many food stamp recipients are probably left hanging, wondering if they will ever receive their benefits. Not only have the poorly managed call center and computer system projects failed to perform as promised, but they have also wasted half a billion of taxpayers' dollars.
Consistent with the high volume of weekly news articles and as indicated by the USDA, a record number of people have been entering the Food Stamp Program as the economy weakens due to the high food and gas prices and lost jobs. This has been more than any other year since the program began in 1964. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Food Stamp Program is expected to spend $36 billion on 28 million recipients nationwide in the fiscal year starting October 1, 2008, an 8 percent increase in participation over the year before. On the same note, there are individual states that are experiencing a much larger increase, such as New Hampshire, reporting an 18 percent rise in food stamp applications compared to last year. Furthermore, Maine and Michigan have indicated that one in eight residents now relies on the food subsidy, compared to about one in 11 nationwide. West Virginia is another example, reporting an even higher rate of one in six.
According to the USDA, there are currently 15 states that offer online Food Stamps applications, with Texas being one of them:
- New Jersey
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
The following six states are testing programs accept electronic applications in specific cities and counties before going statewide:
- New Hampshire
- New York
As indicated by the USDA, nearly 36 million Americans go hungry every year, including 12 million children, and the numbers are rising.