By Zhihong Li
The modernization of the data matching system for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, is creating barriers for poor people to get the benefits they have been used to getting.
A report from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute pointed out that thousands of unexpected SNAP closings have happened since the spring 2014, when the Department of Transitional Assistance changed its data matching system. The modernization, which is also implemented by other states, aims to improve the efficiency of the process and uncover unreported income, said Victoria Negus, an advocate working for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
“The problem in Massachusetts is that we just did it very quickly. We didn’t test it out to see if it works differently and we didn’t see if the phone line capacity is going to be enough,” Negus added.
The Department of Transitional Assistance uses the new data matching system to track all incomes, benefits and other personal information about the applicants, connecting with records at 22 other agencies such as the Department of Revenue. When the information is missing or mismatched, the individuals will receive automatic letters requiring them to prove the information or they will lose their food stamp benefits.
Negus said she received lots of complaints from her clients who suddenly lost their benefits or received such confusing or threatening letters.
“For the income match system, a lot of times the clients had already told DTA about the income, or some income that doesn’t matter to the food stamp, like the income from your child who is over 14 years old and has a job,” Negus said. Besides, many individuals who had one-day work compensations were also asked to prove their income.
Negus said sometimes strange things happened to her agency’s clients. One client from St. Francis House reported her wages to the Department of Transitional Assistance but still received a wage match notice, which requires her to prove the wages. However, the company listed on the notice had nothing to do with the company she worked for.
The report from Massachusetts Law Reform Institute shows that between January 2014 to January 2015, the number of recipients of SNAP dropped by 10.1 percent, almost 88,159 individuals, largely outpacing the national average change and the state unemployment rate change.
Catherine Drennan, Public and Government Relations Coordinator of The Greater Boston Food Bank, said it has seen a 5 percent increase in clients coming to its food pantries between December 2014 to March 2015. She did note, though, there might be some other reasons leading to the increase.
In March, the Department of Transitional Assistance stopped automatically mailing letters. Thomas Mills, the spokesman of the Department of Transitional Assistance, said in a statement that caseworkers are now manually reviewing and processing the wage match data of the Department of Revenue.
“This is a good sign, but we still have a long way to go,” Negus said.
The unfiltered data matching is not the only barrier for homeless people to get their benefits. Before the modernization, an applicant needed to walk into the Department of Transitional Assistance, with an application and documents, and then work with an appointed case manager for further contact. Now individuals just need to call the service line and talk with the first available staff member instead of an assigned case manager.
The Department of Transitional Assistance set up the phone line that can only handle 6,000 to 7,000 calls a day, but recently they were getting 20,000 to 25,000 calls a day, leaving many people waiting on the line, Negus said.
“We heard that people just have to call and call and call. I tried to call nine times a day, and I couldn’t get through,” Negus added.
“Every time when you call to the assistance, you can never get heard. I have to wait for hours and hours,” said Michael Shorey, a client of Woods Mullens Shelter. He used to get $200 per month from his food stamp benefits but said he now only get $16. After failing six times to talk with someone through the phone line, he went twice to the Department of Transitional Assistance and was told that his benefits were cut down because his expenses are low.
“I haven’t got any reply yet. I don’t like the food in the shelter and I’m using my Social Security benefits on food. I just want my food stamp benefits back,” Shorey said.
“DTA handles approximately 5,000 calls a day, and will receive an upgrade to our phone system in June to increase capacity further,” Mills said in the statement.
Negus said she would suggest individuals who have problems with SNAP to call to the Department of Transitional Assistance first, and, if it fails, just walk in to the local office. If they still couldn’t get their issues solved, they can call a state representative office or contact some advocates in their area, Negus added.
The Greater Boston Food Bank has also been working on SNAP issues and has assisted their clients to access, reapply and advocate for the SNAP benefits, Drennan said.