When considering the complexity of the application process for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (or “food stamps”), it is not surprising that there are numerous places along the road where the process can veer off course, delaying a client’s ability to use their benefits to buy food.
It is all the more frustrating when that process veers off course after a client is under the impression that they have already crossed the finish line.
Just Harvest recently encountered several situations in which a client was able to successfully navigate the treacherous obstacles of accurately filling out an application – gathering the mountain of supporting documents for verification of their situation and sending it off to a County Assistance Office, completing an interview with a caseworker and being approved for benefits – with nothing to show for it. The final, crucial step that allows a person to finally use their benefits, receiving an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, never happened.
How can it be, that after what can at times, be a month-long process of phone calls, left messages, faxes, mailings, and more phone calls, a client can be approved and not receive a card? Where does the car veer off the road?
When a new client is approved for benefits, they have the option of having their EBT card mailed to them. For clients who are working full-time, caring for young ones, or are otherwise unable to make it into the County Assistance Office, this would seem to be a convenient option.
When a new client is approved for SNAP benefits, a notice is automatically sent from Harrisburg, informing them of their status and the amount of benefits to be expected. If they cannot pick up the EBT card at the office, it is sent from JP Morgan, who has a contract with the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to create the cards and manage the EBT system.
Once a card is issued, it should arrive in 3-7 days. However, unlike the notice of eligibility from Harrisburg, the card is not automatically issued. It requires an additional step from a caseworker to issue the card. If that step never happens, a client does not receive a card, and is unable to use his or her benefits.
This situation raises several questions. Why isn’t the card automatically issued, like the eligibility notice? How often do caseworkers forget to issue a card? What is the average amount of time it takes a client to receive a card after they have been approved? For a process that can already take 30 days just to determine eligibility, having to wait an additional few days or weeks, could be extremely difficult for someone who needs food right away.
Just Harvest recently encountered a case in which a client was approved, but never received a notice or EBT card. After receiving a Just Harvest newsletter months after applying for benefits, he called to say he had never heard anything.
When our advocate inquired about the case, the gentleman had been receiving benefits for over five months and had no idea. Admittedly, this is an extreme case, yet it illustrates another barrier to receiving food stamp benefits, which have the potential to discourage even the most persistent applicant.
DPW needs to ensure that all applicants who are determined eligible receive an EBT card in a consistent and timely manner, so that clients are never forced to hunt down a card that they have already invested so much time and energy into obtaining.
-Brian Gilmore, AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteer