Cynthia Carter never had high expectations when she went to the Taylor Street Service Center to obtain food stamp benefits. She planned on a time commitment of a few hours. “I’m thinking DMV,” Carter said, referring to the time she usually spends at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
It has been two years since that first visit and she is still struggling to receive the benefits for which she qualifies.
Carter, who studies biomedicine at UDC and works for a local restaurant, was at the Taylor Street center to apply for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known by its former moniker, food stamps.
Carter said that on several occasions she waited in line all day only to receive rushed service just before closing time that failed to resolve her issues. While waiting, she repeatedly called in later and later to work as the line stalled. Often, she had to “take off a whole day of work only to be told, ‘wait, wait,’” Carter said. Whenever she could be seen by service center staff, Carter said she would be told that some critical form, previously submitted, was missing and that she must repeat the process.
Carter is not alone. The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, together with multinational law firm Hogan Lovells and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, recently filed suit against the D.C. Department of Human Services, which runs the service center. The lawsuit alleges that the department is failing its clients and violating the law mandating provision of SNAP benefits.
DHS “systematically and unlawfully fails to provide timely SNAP benefits to hundreds of eligible families in the District of Columbia each month,” according to the suit.
It points to the October 2016 adoption of the D.C. Access System, the computer program responsible for determining SNAP eligibility, as the immediate cause of systemic failures leading to the lawsuit, but the problems at DHS date back further.
“Around 2013 or 2014, the situation was getting more difficult for clients to collect public benefits,” said Jennifer Mezey, an attorney at Legal Aid working on the case.
In May 2014, Legal Aid and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute published a report describing how, due to the “Herculean task” of implementing the Affordable Care Act amid a backdrop of budget-related staffing issues and technological defects, “the promise of a strong safety net has been steadily eroded.”
The authors acknowledged that D.C. was not alone in struggling to meet the administrative requirements of the new healthcare exchanges and Medicaid expansion. In comparison, they argued, the District performed quite well. Yet relative success does not equate to actual success, and, as the report’s authors pointed out, “these breakdowns translate into real hardship for vulnerable District residents.”
The authors of the report updated its findings in March 2015 testimony to the D.C. Council. They noted the large numbers of benefit seekers lined up outside of service centers before 6 a.m., the unsettling frequency with which clients were told they were at the wrong service center and the repeated return trips required of consumers as a result of suspect paperwork handling practices.
Then, in October 2015, that situation came to a head. DHS was sued over its noncompliance with the 2004 Language Access Act. The suit alleged that limited and non-English proficient DHS customers – often those most in need – were effectively denied benefits by a lack of language access services. The office of Attorney General Karl Racine settled the case in December 2016 while promising to provide better language support and participate in a customer advisory group made up of community advocates and government personnel.
On August 28, 2017, DHS was again sued, this time by Legal Aid on behalf of the nonprofit Bread for the City and four D.C. residents struggling to receive benefits. This time the culprit was a computer system update largely funded by the federal government through the Affordable Care Act.
The previous system, the Automatic Client Eligibility Determining System, which had run on large mainframe computers since 1992, was replaced by the D.C. Access System (DCAS) in October 2016. Despite a warning from the federal Food and Nutrition Service that “launching a system without having conducted a live pilot is against the intent of the regulations and against our best advice,” DHS Director Laura Zeilinger and her department went ahead with the upgrade. Almost immediately, severe technical glitches began to endanger the successful and timely distribution of SNAP benefits.
Application processing times jumped from 20 to 90 minutes on the new computer system, according to the court filing. In the three months after the introduction of the new system, the Economic Security Administration missed the federally mandated 30-day processing deadline on 70 percent of new applications for aid. The Washington City Paper also reported major technical problems in the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card system and frequent system outages coinciding with precipitation.
Inefficient processing has heightened tensions between clients and workers, reportedly leading to physical confrontations. “I’ve definitely seen a lot of arguments I thought might escalate,” Carter said.
For fiscal year 2014, DHS reported a “Food Stamp error rate percentage” of 7 percent, almost double its target of 4 percent. The next year, the last one in the online system, saw a reported rate of 8 percent, but the department gave itself a grade of “partially achieved” after also elevating the target to 8 percent. A 2016 Food and Nutrition Service report on the rollout of the new system cited in the Legal Aid filing, meanwhile, observed technical errors in 18 percent of cases sampled.
Bread for the City, the direct-service nonprofit organization participating in the case, reported a 54 percent increase in emergency food aid during the period from October 2016 to May 2017 vs. the same period the year before — and the number of people receiving these food bags increased by 38 percent.
Allison Miles-Lee, an attorney working at Bread for the City for the past nine years, explains that the organization had to temporarily shutter the emergency supplementary food bag program due to the immense financial strain heightened demand had caused. “We’re having to put more time towards SNAP cases, which is impacting our ability to take more clients for our domestic violence and family law practices,” Miles-Lee said. Meanwhile, she says DHS has stopped communicating with Bread for the City and has indefinitely postponed once-regular accountability meetings with advocates.
While she readily acknowledges that multiple factors may be contributing to higher rates of food insecurity, a large chunk of that increase is likely because of DHS, according to Miles-Lee. She has heard anecdotally from Bread for the City’s food department that a significant number of clients have become food insecure as a direct result of the food stamp program’s flaws. One client of Bread for the City finally became certified for SNAP benefits and then right after getting home received eight email notifications to recertify.
These problems, once again, are not unique to the District. A web search for “computer rollout food stamp problems” reveals disastrous computer upgrades in Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Rhode Island over the past few years. Rhode Island received a letter from the Food and Nutrition Service nearly identical to that received by DHS, warning that the state would proceed “at its own risk.”
The bottom line, according to Jennifer Mezey, the Legal Aid attorney, is that the District government is failing residents. The question is whether D.C. residents are receiving the benefits they are owed by law.
Asked to comment on the lawsuit, the DHS provided the following in a statement to Street Sense Media by email: “Any major systems change or implementation comes with complications, but we are already seeing real improvements. Residents are spending less time waiting to be interviewed at service centers, twenty-five percent fewer customers are having to actually visit a service center each day and our capacity has increased and is allowing us to serve 50 percent more families every day.”
There is some hope for people struggling to receive benefits. The kinks in the new computer system, while not resolved, have been smoothed to the extent that there is a relatively quick fix if clients go to Bread for the City or Legal Aid, according to Miles-Lee. Even without direct access to make changes in DCAS, advocates from those two organizations have been able to work with DHS to call attention to individual cases and get problems resolved so residents can receive the aid they need. But she worries about all those who have not received adequate information on how to get help.
“I think most of it is about communication,” Carter said, reflecting on her experiences attempting to receive benefits at DHS service centers. “I think when they’re honest and trying to be straightforward, they’re doing their best.”
If you or someone you know is struggling to receive SNAP benefits, please contact one of the resources listed below:
Legal Aid Help Line: (301) 799-3878 or [email protected]
Bread for the City: (202) 480-8950 (NW Center) or (202) 791-3982 (SE Center)
DHS Call Center: (202) 727-5355 or TTY/TDD 711 (855) 532-5465
Correction: a previous version of this story claimed that financial pressure forced Bread for the City to close its food bag distribution program. This was incorrect. Bread for the City had to temporarily halt the delivery of emergency food bags, but the regular monthly deliveries continue unimpeded.