Texas Slow on Food Stamps Processing-Is this the result of Privatization?

Today the Austin Statesman had an interesting article that many of us know all too well. When it comes to taking care of life’s basic necessities i.e. food clothing and shelter, if you leave it in the hands of profit driven corporations and individuals, the very people they are supposed to serve will be shortchanged. It happens time and time again. Pick a place, pick a time you will find examples underscoring this assertion.

When it comes to making money and having to serve the public sector on behalf of the government what we often find is that important corners are seriously cut.. And why not? Who’s gonna care? The public? Well sure they may care, but they aren’t gonna organize and go through all the hoops to fight back. It’s not like you vote a private company out of business and if they’re the only game in town..guess what?  You can’t take your hard earned business elsewhere.

This has unfortunately been the case with health insurance and as outlined in this article its the case with food stamps in Texas as there was a move to privatize this important service.

The trick thats been pulled on us is to shift public opinion and have us thinking anything government run is inadequate. The way this is done is by having those who stand to gain by privatization to go out and find the most egregious example of incompetence and highlight it as if it’s the norm. So the poster child for poor service might be the mail man caught sleeping on the job while delivering your mail, as was recently shown in the NY Post last week. It might be a Dateline/60 Minutes type expose that shows a government clerk taking their sweet time to provide services at the DMV while long lines wind out the door or some other county office. We’ve all heard the stories and when shown over and over again and highlighted in talking points by staunch free market proponents its given us reason to pause.

Rarely are the poster children for poor service are private owned companies, especially those who are charged with taking care of what used to be government services.  A freewheeling politician looking to score points will lay blame on things in the government sector and promise to clean them up. That proverbial politician will utter things like ‘clean up government waste’  and ‘fire the incompetent’. Rarely do you hear them say ‘our problems lie with a private company who is contracted to the government and when I get into office we switching companies.

I make mention of all this because its something we need to keep in mind as we reflect on the fact that the problem outlined about food stamps and the tardiness in processing them is not a thing of worker incompetence, but mismanagement fueled by mandated privatization. It’s the very private sector that people like Governor Perry and others pushed upon us when they insisted that we would be better served if private companies would handle our business. I think not..

Say what you will, but some business simply belongs in the hands of the government and not private companies.. Today its this food stamp debacle and let’s be honest, if you’re not on food stamps there’s a likelihood to not make this a top priority of concern.If the food stamp scene is not functioning well, too bad, let those poor people get jobs and stop living off the public dole is how many people tend to think. But as the old saying goes.. ‘It’s just a matter of time’ . It’s just a matter of time before incompetence plaguing many in the private sector  comes to a service center near you soon.

-Davey D-

Federal officials: Texas needs food stamp czar


By Corrie MacLaggan
Tuesday, October 06, 2009

williamludwigFederal officials say Texas should appoint a food stamp czar to take charge of fixing the application backlogs and high error rates plaguing the program.

“All states are feeling the pinch right now because of the economic recession, but I’m not aware of any state that is having it to the degree that Texas is,” said William Ludwig, a Dallas-based regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

Ludwig, who rarely gives interviews, oversees food stamps for Texas and four other states. He attributed the state’s problems last week to a “whole series of missteps, mismanagement over the last four years,” starting with thousands of state workers getting pink slips in advance of a massive privatization effort.

In September, Texas failed to process 41.4 percent of applications by the federal government’s deadline: 30 days for regular applications, seven days for emergency applications.

Texas Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs said Monday that he’s “doing everything I possibly can to look at any administrative barriers I can to get that time frame down.” For example, Suehs said he’s working to give regional offices more flexibility rather than dictating from Austin how work should flow.

Meanwhile, Ludwig said that he’s arranging for food stamp officials from successful programs to visit Texas.

Ludwig said Texas needs “a controller who’s responsible for fixing this problem, and that be their sole job.” Suehs said that he’s considering that, but that there is already a deputy executive commissioner for social services, Joanne Molina. “I’d rather hold my senior executive accountable,” he said.

Ludwig, who told Suehs in a letter last month that Texas’ federal food stamp funds will be at risk if the state doesn’t speed up processing applications, also says Texas could cut down on paperwork by eliminating an asset test — which limits the value of assets such as vehicles that applicants can have — and if it stops taking applicants’ fingerprints.

But because both are state laws, Suehs said, “I can’t do anything until the Legislature comes back” in January 2011.

Some families wait as long as five or six months for benefits, Ludwig said.

“How many people give up?” Ludwig asked. “That’s what we’re concerned about.”

Kyle resident Gracie DeJesus said she waited 64 days to get her benefits renewed, visiting food banks and frantically calling to check her application status. On Thursday, she walked into a Hays County food stamp office to confront caseworkers, she said.

“I was absolutely just in tears,” said DeJesus, 35, a bookkeeper and a Central Texas native. “I have four children, and I got tired of feeding them cans of spinach.”

DeJesus said she told state workers that she wasn’t leaving until she got her $700 in monthly benefits.

It worked. Her application was approved while she waited, she said.

But by then, she said, she had fallen behind on rent and her electricity and water had been cut off.

By far, the problems are worst in Houston, where 36.1 percent of applications were processed on time last month, and Dallas, where 44 percent were. But Ludwig said the problems have “started to trickle” to other areas of the state.

State documents show that two of the state’s slowest food stamp offices are in Amarillo and San Antonio.

In Central Texas, state workers are processing applications more quickly than in the rest of the state because the region hasn’t seen the economy-related jump in applications that other areas of the state have.

There are 2.8 million Texans on food stamps, an increase of 11 percent from last year.

Suehs, who became commissioner Sept. 1, met last week with supervisors from across the state and said he was shocked to learn how frequently employees were working overtime, staying late and coming in on the weekends. The state spent $2.5 million in August on overtime for enrollment workers.

Texas wasn’t always in this position.

From 1998 to 2004, the federal government gave the state bonus payments for payment accuracy. Last year, Texas had a higher error rate than the national average.

Some of the worker shortage dates to fall 2005, when former Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins informed 2,900 eligibility workers that they wouldn’t have a job after the start of a Legislature-mandated privatization plan. Though officials later decided to retain some of the workers, many had already left.

“The key thing that happened that has really led to us being here is the state gave pink slips” to workers, Ludwig said. “Those were the senior employees who understood the system.”

In mid-August, Hawkins asked the Legislative Budget Board and Gov. Rick Perry for permission to add about 650 workers to its 7,700-worker system.

The budget board denied the request in late September, just before a Legislature-imposed response deadline, saying that it would continue working with the commission. On Friday, the board approved hiring up to 250 of the 650 workers and directed the commission to immediately fill 400 vacant jobs. The board also said the commission could request up to 399 more.

Sen. Steve Ogden, a Bryan Republican on the budget board, said he raised an objection that stalled the process close to the deadline.

“I’m glad we took a little time to look at this a little more critically rather than just rubber-stamp an approval request,” Ogden said. “As a result, we’re going to spend less money than we would have otherwise, and we’re going to have a better result.”

But some observers, such as Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which is an advocate for low-income Texans, have said that the budget board shouldn’t have taken so long to make a decision when tens of thousands of Texans were awaiting help.

“I’ll accept the criticism,” Ogden said. “In retrospect, I should have gotten on it sooner.”

Ludwig said that the fact that the state’s sign-up operation uses two different computer systems “has hurt Texas.”

As for the backlog, he said, state officials “are not going to get out of this overnight.”

cmaclaggan@statesman.com; 445-3548

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