As corona virus tearing up the Louisiana economy over the past two months, a number of historic people applied for food aid, many after losing their jobs from a government-mandated shutdown.
But large swaths of people were deemed ineligible for the Additional Nutrition Assistance Program because of supercharged unemployment payments that inadvertently increased their income above the threshold to qualify for food stamps.
This difficulty comes because a lot of experience is waiting long for food stamps and unemployment benefits because an unprecedented level of application is flooding the agencies that handle the program. The two agencies, the Department of Child and Family Services and the Louisiana Labor Commission, have since made steps in pursuit of the number of claims.
DCFS, which oversees SNAP, saw an average of 33,000 applications a month ago. On March 31, just over a week after Governor John Bel Edwards issued home stay orders, nearly 23,000 people applied for one day.
In March, applications surged to 93,705. Last month, 108,488 people registered. In 30 days after schools closed, in mid-March, the agency said applications had grown five times the normal amount.
“This is the most historic and unprecedented event we have ever had with the SNAP program,” said Marketa Walters, DCFS secretary. “It continues to build.”
But the data shows that most of the people were rejected, which most officials attribute to new unemployment benefits that push people beyond the income threshold. As part of a $ 2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress at the end of March, the federal government gives $ 600 a week to all those who qualify for unemployment, above the state allowance, which in Louisiana is a maximum of $ 247. $ 847 per week will place most people in households four and five above the income limit for food stamps.
In April, more than 74,000 people were rejected because of food stamps, more than seven times the normal amount.
Shavana Howard, DCFS assistant secretary for family support, said the agency had heard from other countries that as many as half of those who applied for food assistance were not eligible due to increased unemployment benefits.
“This is a federal program and we must follow all federal guidelines,” Howard said. “Unfortunately, all income is continuously calculated.”
The dilemma for those laid off from the economic collapse caused by the pandemic is further complicated by delays in food stamps and unemployment offices, which struggle to keep up with increasing applications.
DCFS puts workers on compulsory overtime and brings more than 120 additional staff from other parts of the agency, recent retirees, call centers and even some of the Louisiana Revenue Department employees.
However, the number of pending claims exceeds the agency’s ability to process them in the early weeks, leaving thousands waiting for benefits. The agency has 30 days to process claims before they are considered part of the guarantee, and in mid-April, 108,684 applications are waiting, with around 13,000 in one week from the 30-day deadline.
In addition to the many applications, DCFS has just begun implementing a new computer system to handle food stamp applications, a month before the virus was discovered in Louisiana.
“This is just an extraordinarily perfect storm,” Walters said.
The agency has reduced the number of pending claims, to around 25,000 on Wednesday, said Sammy Guillory, DCFS deputy assistant secretary for family support.
According to DCFS, the number of applications approaching the 30-day deadline for processing has dropped to around 5,400 on May 8, indicating the agency has largely followed.
Unlike after many other disasters, the pandemic did not produce a disaster food coupon program, called D-SNAP. The program offers food benefits to people who normally do not receive benefits, but who lose wages or damage from storms, floods and the like.
For example, after Hurricane Katrina, 345,441 people were approved for D-SNAP. After the August 2016 flood in southern Louisiana, 123,000 were approved.
Reginald Moore, a 37-year-old chef in Baton Rouge, lost his job when he went to prison in January for using fake checks. When he left on bail, on April 15, the country was in a pandemic upheaval, with schools and thousands of businesses closed.
He tried to apply for unemployment and food stamps but was delayed with both. On May 7, his case manager for food stamps explained the delay: The case was moved to a new computer system.
“After being converted, they say they can process it,” Moore said, adding that he had more difficulty controlling anyone in the Labor Commission.
Danny Mintz, an anti-hunger policy advocate at the Louisiana Budget Project, said the delay at DCFS was “pretty much inevitable” given the volume of applications that came in for such a short period.
Applying for unemployment and food stamps can be “very confusing” for people to navigate, Mintz said. For example, people can receive food stamp benefits if they successfully process their application before unemployment benefits but are then disqualified because of new income.
He also noted the agency had received several waivers from the federal government for food stamps. Perhaps most significantly, it allows agents to pay maximum benefits for all eligible people, generating $ 43.5 million in emergency benefits paid to more than a quarter million households in March and the same amount in April.
The agency also received relief to simplify the application process, but requests to allow recipients to spend money on hot food – Walters noted this was the crawling season – and to override some verification requirements for students, were rejected. Work requirements are deferred.
Mintz also noted that rising unemployment benefits would end in the coming months for most workers if Congress did not extend them. That could lead to a second wave in food stamp applications if people lose additional benefits.
Plus, Mintz said he expects the flexibility given by the federal states for food stamps during the pandemic to go far before the economy returns to normal for workers.
“The needs here are extraordinary,” Mintz said. “While applications have come down to something like the level that DCFS saw before coronavirus, I would hope the application would start to surge again if Congress does not approve the extension of this large lump of unemployment benefit.”
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