Hungry & Waiting: The Food Stamp Backlog

Everyday thousands of Texas families go to bed hungry and wonder where their next meal will come from. In the midst of a troubled economy, Texas’s food stamp program has been named the worst in the entire country as more than 40,000 Texans wait more than thirty days to hear if they will get the assistance they need to survive. So Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) did what we know how to do – we sued to get the state to meet federal and state guidelines that mandate thirty day deadlines. After all, waiting more than one month to know if you’ll get the help you need to feed your family is not acceptable.

lone star card

The Lone Star card is used by food stamp recipients to access their benefits.

Two months. Three months. Six months.

That’s how long some families had been waiting for food stamps before they decided to turn to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) for help. In a troubled economy more Texas families are having difficulty putting food on the table and knowing where their next meal will come from. Texas is currently the worst ranked state in processing food stamp applications and one of the worst states for hunger insecurity in the country.

Federal and state laws mandate that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) make decisions on food stamps applications within thirty days of their submission. But for at least the last four years, HHSC has had difficulty meeting those deadlines and thousands of Texas families have had to go to bed hungry because of it. In the midst of an economic downturn and high unemployment, more than 40,000 Texas families have been waiting for responses to their food stamp applications.

“People need to receive a decision on whether they will get this aid within thirty days,” said TRLA attorney Renee Trevino. “When it comes to feeding your family, having to wait longer than that is not acceptable.”

Knowing that there is a serious problem, TRLA established a special food stamps hotline for Texans having problems with their applications. By contacting TRLA at 1-866-757-1570 callers are able to speak with TRLA staff about their situation and determine their eligibility for free legal services. In the event that staff is unavailable, callers can supply their information and have someone contact them the following business day.

The hotline, launched right before the Christmas holidays, aimed to help hungry families avoid having to face that hunger during the holiday season. But TRLA went one step further and in late December filed a lawsuit against HHSC related to the delays.

Filed in state court, the lawsuit asks a judge to order HHSC to comply with the thirty day deadline. Originally filed on behalf of seven families and two nonprofit organizations, the lawsuit represents the struggles and frustrations of thousands of struggling families across the state.

And as the legal battle continued and within one month of the opening of the hotline, more than one hundred families came to TRLA for help after waiting more than thirty days for a decision on their food stamps applications. In many cases, help from TRLA was able to get families decisions on their food stamp applications within forty-eight hours – after many of them had been waiting as long as six months.  It seemed that if people wanted their food stamp applications processed quickly, they needed an attorney’s signature to accompany their request.

The battle against hunger received federal support when, in early January, federal officials visited Austin to review Texas’s progress on rectifying the backlog. But Kevin Concannon of the United States Department of Agriculture did not have many compliments for the Lone Star State.

In fact, Concannon was highly critical of the state’s lack of progress and supported many of the ideals behind TRLA’s lawsuit – this is an emergency situation and it requires immediate action. Texas needs to do better.

In the weeks that followed, many organizations found themselves with the same rallying cries as TRLA. In early February, state food banks released a study that confirmed what TRLA already knew – food insecurity is at its highest levels ever. According to the study, more than 3 million Texans turned to a food bank for help in 2009. Most importantly, only 31% of those families were receiving food stamp assistance – a statistic that shows that local agencies are straining their resources to make up for the food stamp backlog.

And as the legal battle has continued, Texas families have continued to go hungry while the state has continued to show timeliness percentages in the sixties.

“Their stubbornness only hurts hungry Texas families,” added TRLA Executive Director David Hall. “It’s ridiculous that we would treat our poor this way.”

In October HHSC promised that the backlog would be fixed in February 2010. But in February the agency admitted that the problem still existed and the agency did not know when the issues would be resolved. In fact, they no longer had a reasonable timeline for fixing the issues that leave thousands of Texas families without food. In early March the agency explained that they expect the backlog to be cleared by the end of April. But, in the meantime, Texas families are still being forced to wait for help they desperately need.

As the backlog continues, so too does the legal fight. Though it is unclear when or how the problems will be fixed, TRLA has committed itself to pursuing all legal options available to families in need.

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