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Food stamp demand outpacing county bureaucracies

by Chris Hinyub, published

San Diego County still ranks last in food stamp program participation among 22 metro regions across the country, according to the D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center. Statewide, food stamp participation is about 20 percent below the national average of 72 percent. These would appear to be intriguing facts, considering the state's traditional attitude toward social services.

California counties have been hampered in the race for full food stamp participation by a few bureaucratic hurdles, but state policymakers have moved in recent months to streamline the food stamp application process and remove unnecessary red tape.

For instance, in January, the state dropped its requirement that all adult members of a household applying for food stamps are to be fingerprinted. Several nonprofit groups that help families apply for state aid pressed for the decision, which they say saves working, disabled or those without adequate transportation the burden of a trip to a county welfare office to have their fingerprints scanned. In July, the rules governing transfer of benefits between counties changed to make it so a family or individual could relocate without having to reapply. California was one of only three states that required a new application for inter-county transfer.

Those who advocate a roll for the state in expanding access to federal aid to the poor are still striving to implement a change in how often beneficiaries must report their income. California is the only state to mandate reporting four times a year. Counties have until October 2013 to switch to the more common practice of twice-yearly reporting adopted by other states to reduce workloads and lower costs.

This brings us to another peculiarity with California's food stamp program.  According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the per month cost for each CalFresh case is $60 – over twice the national average.

A new report highlighting the fact that five of every six calls to the county's Health and Human Services Agency (that's over 350,000 calls) go unanswered each month, because the department is underequipped and understaffed, makes it clear that costs are inhibiting fuller participation.  The report, compiled by a Northern California call center consultancy called InTelegy, places the blame on a lack of proper “technology solutions.” The Union-Tribune notes that the final draft of the InTelegy report cost the county $71,700.

Health and Human Services Agency Director Nick Macchione told the Union-Tribune he is committed to implementing recommendations from the study, and noted that his department already has made progress. He said the number of people receiving food stamps in recent years has more than doubled, to almost 250,000.

"InTelegy suggests the county encourage clients to apply for benefits online or over the telephone. The study also recommends county officials spruce up welfare offices, hire more caseworkers, install scanning equipment at application centers and interview more clients by telephone to avoid delays," according to the Union-Tribune article.

At least five Bay Area counties are looking to emulate, in part or entirely, San Diego's call-center-heavy approach, which will have call-center staff boosted from 59 to 155. Further, Macchione said, he wants to enhance worker training and install an additional 50 phone lines to bring the total to 192. The county has spent $3.6 million so far to improve food stamp and welfare access, he says.

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