Food Stamp Fracas

Amid much fanfare from public officials last June, Texas accepted a record $19.7 million federal bonus for its apparent victory in the fight against food stamp fraud.

By relying on extensive computer checks and other investigative techniques that were hailed as a role model for other large states, Texas had weeded out ineligible food stamp recipients in record numbers: In two years the error rate dropped from 12.4 percent to 5.27 percent.

Among the politicians praising the reduction was U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who called it proof that large government programs can "be run with the same integrity, focus and foresight expected from big business."

However, there were no state and federal officials on hand with praise last week. The agency that handles the food stamp program, the Texas Department of Human Services, wound up in court to accept new, stiff monitoring requirements.

Legal aid attorney Mario Caballero and his 15 clients sued the department on behalf of food stamp recipients who alleged that the state's toughened verification program, especially in its Houston district, resulted in widespread harassment, delays and rejection of food stamp applications from those entitled to the assistance.

Rather than ferreting out welfare fraud, the program frustrated the needy to the point that they dropped out of the effort to get help, advocates for the poor allege.

Last week U.S. Magistrate Francis Stacy approved a consent order for Caballero to monitor the state's food stamp program for 2.5 years to determine if it meets federal guidelines in processing applications. If the state agency does not comply with the mandated deadlines in certifying the needy for food stamps, it will face potential contempt-of-court action to force compliance.

"It is important for the agency to be accountable and to follow the law," Caballero says. "They're very strict about making my clients follow the law. My clients can be penalized, arrested and even jailed. I just want an even playing field; I want there to be accountability on both sides."

The order is akin to the highly publicized cases in which federal courts monitored reforms in the Texas prison system and some public school districts during the era of desegregation.

Caballero, an attorney for the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation, says that the state, particularly the Houston district, consistently violated the federal regulations that food stamp applications be approved or denied within 30 days of being filed.

For 12 months ending last September, 15 percent of the applications received by the state took longer than 30 days to be processed. Caballero says some clients waited as long as six months for action on their claims.

The court order gives the agency a six-month grace period on deadlines, but then requires that no more than 5 percent of the applications take longer than 30 days to process.

Similar requirements are attached to the processing of renewal applications for food stamps. While applicants could be approved to receive food stamps for up to three months without renewal, many of the poor were forced to apply for renewals within one or two months. There are new restrictions reducing the period that people can receive food stamps.

The agency agreed to the provisions of the order without admitting any wrongdoing.

"If you come into the office, we're going to do our best to certify you as quick as possible," says TDHS spokesman Chris Traylor, who says the state agency has a high rate of accuracy. "We have the lowest error rate of any of the large states. The department wants to ensure that food stamps are delivered accurately."

Still, Caballero says thousands of applicants have been dropped from the system because of the delays and procedures used by the agency. Houston has the highest dropout rate in the state, losing better than one in four Hispanic applicants, he says. That hardly meets the 97 percent accuracy rate required by federal government guidelines, Caballero says.

Statistics for Harris County seem to show the results of the food stamp application problems. While food stamp rolls have dropped 21 percent nationally over the past five years, they have fallen 41 percent in Texas. And in Harris County, about 434,000 people -- 63 percent of those below the poverty level -- received food stamps in 1995. This year only about 133,000, or 32 percent of the poor, receive them.

Behind the blizzard of statistics in the case are humans, such as recipient Amelia Neal, a disabled Fourth Ward resident.

Neal says she never knows what kind of reception she'll get when she arrives at the Texas Department of Human Services to renew her food stamp application.

Disabled with asthma complications since 1981 and on public assistance since 1982, the 38-year-old has spent years being shuffled through the federal public assistance system. She is still seeking the certification that will grant her Social Security disability benefits.

"It's very scary most of the time. You don't know who you're going to have for a case manager and what kind of attitude they're going to have," admits Neal, who lives with her four children in a small house. "You've got to be ready for whatever they throw at you."

Neal tells of gathering up all the documents and papers requested by the human services agency and waiting long periods for her appointment with the staff. Then they would tell her that the papers weren't the ones needed, that she should come back with other papers.

On at least four occasions, the bureaucratic problems left Neal without food stamps, once for as long as two months. She had to rely on her family and church to support her until the questions were resolved.

"If I was able to work, I wouldn't have to receive food stamps, but right now it's the only income I have," says Neal, one of the plaintiffs. "It shouldn't be hard for a person to get help."

Food stamps, says Caballero, should be the safety net of public assistance, offered when no other subsidies are available. Even the most destitute person, the one who lives on the street with no ability to work, should be able to rely on food stamps to exist, Caballero says.

But most food stamp applicants, including all but two of Caballero's plaintiffs, would be classified as "working poor." They put in a 40-hour work week but still can't make ends meet. The minimum wage often does not stretch far enough to pay for much more than rent and utilities, much less for medical insurance and food, Caballero says.

"What the food stamp is is a subsidy to low wages for the employer. The federal government agrees to subsidize businesses so they can continue to pay low wages," Caballero says, adding that the system's rules often make it harder for those with an income. "It should be the other way around. You ought to be rewarded for working."

Caballero has his own theories about why the state agency, which processes up to 1.5 million food stamp applications a year, takes so long. One main flaw in the system, says Caballero, is that an application often passes through five or six sets of hands, from a caseworker and investigators to the caseworker's supervisor, before it is approved.

One employee will verify employment, another will look through credit databases, and a third may drive by to do a background check. Much of the time, the need for intense scrutiny is groundless, he says.

"They're checking up on people without any grievance," says Caballero. "They have a profile, and then they go out and investigate anyone who fits the profile. They're going to investigate you just because you draw more benefits? It doesn't make sense."

Caballero doesn't dispute the agency's right to perform investigations, as long as they're done in a timely manner.

"I think you do want to be careful, but you don't want to take two months to process an application," Caballero says. "There's nothing in my case that enjoins them from carefully investigating a family. I don't have a right to do that, but I do have a right to say, 'Don't be late.' "

Caballero is optimistic that the recent consent order, which binds TDHS to keeping to federal timelines, will be followed. Still, as he discusses this case, he has his eyes on his next piece of litigation: forcing TDHS to increase its use of bilingual case managers.

"I am litigious because the problems are fundamental," says Caballero. "It's not a work error or an individual case where a worker has made a mistake. These problems are systemic, and the only way to address them is litigation. They only respond to pressure."

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