By Brenda Flanagan
“I really even don’t know what to do, because my information is floating somewhere, out there,” said Albertha Milford.
Milford applied for a SNAP card — food stamps — with a caseworker in Essex County. The 20-year-old from Irvington for waited weeks, months and finally went back to check.
“And they said that, ‘Oh, you’re not even in the system,’” Milford said. “I came in the office, went in the back, had an interview with somebody? But you guys can’t find my name.”
Food banks and pantries across New Jersey say it’s a growing crisis. In Bergen County’s Center for Food Action, Adele LaTourette said, “We have people who come in here all the time saying, ‘I applied 60 days ago. I applied 120 days ago. I never heard back.’”
“Some people are just not getting processed,” said Diane Riley of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
Riley says the food bank helps people fill out SNAP applications, but can’t guarantee they’ll get processed, or even get an explanation.
“They can’t get a hold of anybody. The phone rings or they leave messages and they never get through,” Riley said.
“We don’t have the staff to do the job,” said David Weiner.
Weiner heads the Essex County workers’ union that processes SNAP applications. He showed us photos of backlogged applications piled up in rooms and says the number of SNAP applicants has exploded — people line up around the block.
“We have literally — and I say we, all the county welfare agencies –have literally been starved of staffing, because it saves the local government money,” said Weiner.
“We need a much greater state commitment to this program. The state does not provide any fund for outreach,” said NJ Policy Perspective’s Ray Castro.
Castro says their recent study outlined New Jersey’s extreme application backlog. New Jersey counties currently process only 72 percent of SNAP applications within 30 days. The national average — 95 percent.
And if New Jersey doesn’t improve, the feds are threatening to withhold millions of dollars.
“The state could be sanctioned at any point and that could result in the loss of millions of dollars to New Jersey,” said Castro
“If the state doesn’t step in and provide more resources — meaning personal or better computers, so when people apply they can be reviewed, and either accepted and reviewed within 30 days — then the federal government says you’re not going quickly enough on these applications,” said Congressman Frank Pallone.
New Jersey’s Department of Human Services said in a statement, it “already has submitted a corrective action plan to the federal government. While awaiting federal review of that plan, DHS continues to work with the counties on measures to improve timeliness in application processing and data reporting.”
“It really is crazy, because something like that is really important. People out here, they don’t have money,” said Milford.
And often, that means they go hungry.