Federal funds at risk over ‘serious failure’ in N.C. food stamp program


Food stamp recipient Rebecka Ortiz of Rhode Island shops with her daughter. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Delays in handing out food stamps in North Carolina have been so bad for so long that the federal government could pull funding.

More than 6,000 households had been waiting more than three months on benefits, a United States Department of Agriculture regional director noted in a Dec. 11 letter to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Keep it up, the official warned, and the state could lose federal funding.

“These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina,” the USDA’s Donald Arnette wrote in the letter posted on DHHS’s Web site. “Access to nutrition assistance program benefits for every eligible person who meets the qualifications, needs the help, and seeks assistance is a priority for [the Food and Nutrition Service]. We have grave concern for the low income people of North Carolina who are waiting for the assistance.”

The state had provided requested data to the USDA, but it failed to come up with a plan to fix the problem, Arnette wrote. He gave the state 60 days to implement a plan or face a suspension of benefits.

“SNAP is one of our country’s strongest defenses against hunger and poverty and a critical support for eligible low-income families during tough economic times,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “USDA expects North Carolina to take whatever steps are necessary to fix these system issues as quickly as possible and deliver benefits to eligible clients in a timely fashion.”

The federal government pays for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and splits the cost of the program’s administration with states. It’s those administrative funds that USDA threatened to cut in the Dec. 11 letter.

News of the letter surprised local lawmakers.

“I was under the impression that it had stabilized and things were getting on track,” Sen. Jeff Tarte (R) told WRAL-TV on Thursday . “That’s just embarrassing at a minimum. This is one we need to jump on.”

A review of thousands of pages of public records revealed a “buggy, sluggish system” to enter cases, WRAL-TV reported last month. A browser compatibility issue had resulted in overdue benefits for almost tens of thousands of recipients.

In a Dec. 20 letter, a state official cited a recent report showing nearly 30,000 pending benefits applications. About two thirds were to be processed within 30 days, and a third were to be processed within a week, according to the letter. Just over half of the 30-day applications were late, while 86 percent of the one-week applications “have been pending anywhere from 8 to over 120 days,” according to the letter. Nearly 2,000 of the expedited one-week applications were late by more than 120 days.

Food stamp benefits declined by about five percent nationally in November, when extra stimulus funds were allowed to expire after more than 4.5 years. Roughly one in six North Carolinians lived below the poverty level between 2008 and 2012, according to the Census Bureau.

Read more:
Original report on the Dec. 11 letter from N.C. Policy Watch
• WRAL: USDA threatens to pull funding over food stamps problems (1/9/2014)
• WRAL: Records: DHHS downplayed food stamp issues (12/9/2013)
USDA letter to NC DHHS threatening pulling of funds (12/11/2013)
North Carolina Division of Social Services Letter detailing new delays (12/20/2013)

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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