Forsyth DSS: No delay in food-stamp benefits despite reports to contrary

by Jordan Green

Acutoff in long-term unemployment benefits and reduced payouts for new applicants imposed by state government has created anxiety. There is uncertainty about whether the US Congress will cut funding for food stamps.

School children who normally receive free and reduced lunch are making do on summer break. Add to that a new integrated intake system under implementation across the state.

In Winston-Salem, signs that the foodsafety net is fraying are abundant.

When NC Sen. Earline Parmon (D- Forsyth) held a press conference on July 1 to highlight the cutoff in long-term unemployment benefits, one of her constituents, Kathy Torrey, pointed to a gap in part of the safety net that is supposed to catch those who are out of work and no longer qualify for income assistance. She said she had to wait two months before monetary benefits were added to her electronic benefits card after applying at the Forsyth County Department of Social Services. She added that she was not the only one whose benefits had been delayed.

“The day that I went there, there was so many people in an uproar that they closed the door,” Torrey said.

Several people who work with social service agencies that assist low-income individuals said they were familiar with the challenges.

“It’s widespread, and the reason it’s widespread is because it’s a system change,” said Obie Johnson, an outreach worker employed by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Forsyth County Social Services Director Joe Raymond acknowledged that the implementation of NC FAST — a statewide overhaul of social services to streamline case management — has challenged staff.

“What is fair to say is that all of our staff are trying to learn how to use the new system and there are delays,” he said, adding that he feels confident that the number of eligible people who are not receiving benefits is not significantly higher than normal.

“Any time, whether it’s a hospital or the private sector, when you’re changing a massive information technology system that counts on thousands of em-ployees to learn how to use it, absolutely there’s issues on the way,” Raymond said. “I’m unaware of any macro-statistical thing going on here. I’m unaware of any technology glitch that is throwing people out of the system.”

He added that the account of staff closing the office because of an “uproar” was “categorically inaccurate.”

“The doors have not closed at DSS,” he said. “Our hours have been the same.”

Neighboring Guilford County was one of four counties that piloted the new system last year, and a glitch in implementation resulted in thousands of clients discovering there was no money in their accounts.

Nothing like that is occurring in Forsyth County, Raymond said, while acknowledging that he has received a message from Second Harvest Food Bank of North Carolina “that they’ve heard rumblings of delays.”

The Forsyth County Department of Social Service’s caseload for families that receive food and nutrition assistance has doubled to 28,000 since 2009, when significant numbers of people were thrown out of work with the onset of the Great Recession. Raymond said that in any given month the department processes 4,000 requests for food stamps, and “there’s a third that show up overdue” — typically because a client hasn’t met stringent documentation requirements.

“Overall, I will tell you we do really well, and we are not a county that has been dinged for massive delays,” he said.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the division of social services, declined to make someone available for comment, but Public Affairs Director Ricky Diaz said in a prepared statement that the department “has sent several full-time staff members from the state to Forsyth County to assist them in transitioning and learning the new system.”

Johnson, the outreach worker with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said he doesn’t consider the delays to be a hardship.

“I was working with two young ladies; their recertification was at the same time,” Johnson said. “I thought the case worker was very professional. She explained that everything should be back the next week. We went over to the food bank and got them enough food. People are angry about it because they’re saying, ‘Oh, I don’t have enough food? What am I going to do?’ But then they go to the food pantry, and they’re back on track in two weeks.”

Deloris Huntley, who operates a food pantry at Alpha & Omega Church of Faith on Gray Avenue, said two or three clients told her that their food-stamp benefits had been delayed and they might not receive them for several months.

“There are more people who are needing food,” she said. “It just has been an increase because of people not getting their food stamps. There are more people out of work, too.”

Food pantries are not always an adequate backstop when people are waiting for their benefits to come through, Huntley suggested. Alpha & Omega operates a food pantry on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, but will be on hiatus for the rest of the month because of the church’s upcoming convocation.

“Somebody needed some emergency food,” Huntley recalled of a recent visit. “It was hard for us to pull up some for them. We had our food pantry on Tuesday, and it pretty much depleted our storehouse. The food bank doesn’t have a lot of food.”

Jenny Moore, development manager for marketing and public relations at Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, said her agency is expecting a 60-percent reduction in sourcing, related to fluctuations in supply from federal commodities programs, grocery overstock and food drives.

“Here it is summer, one of the most challenging parts of the year,” she said. “There are a number of reasons for that. You have families whose children count on free and reduced lunch during the school year who no longer have access to that program. There are summer feeding programs, but only a small percentage of children are able to access them because of lack of transportation.”

Moore said food-security advocates have been anxiously monitoring the federal Farm Bill. On July 11, the Republican-controlled US House approved a version of the bill that severed nutritional assistance, breaking a longstanding arrangement in which agricultural subsidies had traditionally been yoked to food assistance in an “everybody gets something” arrangement that ensured votes from both rural conservatives and urban liberals. House Republicans have let it be known that they want to reduce spending on food stamps, while Democrats have resisted cutbacks.

“Food stamps are absolutely critical,” Moore said. “The need for them rises and falls with the unemployment rate. When unemployment rises, so too does the demand for food stamps. It’s the fastest, most responsive program to deal with people who are dealing with economic struggles. That is the most important part of the safety net.”

Sammy Carter has received food stamps for six years. He typically recertifies every March, but was unable to do so earlier this year because he was in jail. He reapplied in April, but has yet to see his benefits restored. He said a caseworker told him that he would receive retroactive benefits for the months of April, May, June and July.

Accompanied by a reporter, Carter went back to the department of social services to check on his benefits on July 12. The caseworker declined to discuss the case in the presence of a reporter. Once the reporter had left the area, she told Carter the money would be on his card at the end of the day or the next day. As promised, four months worth of retroactive benefits appeared on Carter’s card the next day. But on Monday, Carter said his fiancée’s foodstamp benefits failed to re-up.

While not commenting on any individual case, Raymond said, “It is not infrequent for me to get a complaint and the customer has not given us the documentation and we cannot approve the application and they don’t like the answer.”

Carter is currently staying his brother. While frustrated that his food benefits have been held up after repeated visits to the department of social services, he has managed to find three meals a day without imposing on his host.

“I try not to mess with their food because they got two little kids,” Carter said. “As far as me, I go to Samaritan Ministries to eat.”