Already under scrutiny for taking too long to process unemployment checks and home-energy assistance claims, Pennsylvania is also too slow in approving food-stamp applications, compelling the federal government to order the state to improve its performance.
Pennsylvania ranks among the worst in the nation for getting food stamps to the needy within 30 days, as required by federal law, according to an Inquirer examination of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food-stamp program.
“There are only a few states where the problem is as extreme as in Pennsylvania,” said David Super, poverty law professor at Georgetown University School of Law. The USDA ranks Pennsylvania 39th on a list of 53 that includes the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Critics say Pennsylvania causes backlogs by scrimping on caseworkers and emphasizing fraud prevention even though food-stamp fraud is rare. The result is that many of the neediest citizens going without benefits for which they qualify.
Acknowledging the food-stamp problem, Anne Bale, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, said, “We have every intent of doing better.”
Bale said the DPW, which oversees the distribution of food stamps in Pennsylvania, is working on a plan to correct its timeliness, as ordered by the USDA in December.
She said one reason for poor performance was that so many people — 1.8 million — receive food stamps, also known as SNAP benefits (for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Bale added that many clients wait until the last minute to submit their paperwork, causing delays.
Advocates for the poor say the problem is that the state has too few caseworkers processing forms.
They also say that the state spends so much time looking for fraud that it creates a system too full of red tape to function properly.
USDA figures show that even though several states process more claims than Pennsylvania does, they do so more quickly.
New York has more than 3.1 million SNAP recipients, yet it processed 90.94 percent of its benefits in the proper amount of time. Florida has nearly twice the number of Pennsylvania’s SNAP recipients (3.5 million), yet garnered a timeliness rate of 94.01.
Pennsylvania’s most recent timeliness rating was 81.44.
Any state below 90 percent must devise a corrective action plan that brings its timeliness up to 95 percent, according to USDA rules.