As published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on April 18, 2014.

The state’s chronic underfunding of its human service agency is provoking the threat of a federal crackdown, as its food stamp program isn’t keeping up with the increase in Georgians eligible for benefits following the Great Recession.

Food stamps help put meals on the table for about 1.7 million Georgians every day. It’s too bad the program often serves as a political punching bag, because the truth is it provides a vital support system to many families that lost income when the economy collapsed.

It isn’t their fault the number of Georgians living in poverty rose to 1.8 million in 2012 from 1.3 million in 2007. It wasn’t their call to cut the state’s Department of Human Services budget by more than 15 percent since 2009. They certainly don’t deserve to be drug tested for the privilege of applying for food assistance, as pending legislation would require.

Still, families that rely on food assistance are left to suffer the consequences of an ongoing state budget squeeze. A flawed new phone system in state offices is causing unacceptable waits for people trying to get information about benefits. A backlog of applications is so severe the federal government granted the governor’s request to pause eligibility screening for some applicants to clear it before penalizing Georgia as much as $15 million.

Food stamps are one of the few public assistance programs in place to quickly meet the needs of families as they struggle to get by after the state and national economies collapsed. Thousands of Georgia families were able to use the benefits to purchase groceries after their personal finances cratered.

Operating an efficient food stamp program is also good for Georgia in the long run.  Children in families that receive food assistance enjoy better health and educational outcomes than children without access to food stamps. Children make up nearly half of Georgia’s food stamp recipients.

Georgia’s problem is self-inflicted. The state did not increase state spending to add caseworkers during the recession, even as caseloads began a rapid climb in 2009.  State workers who review eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families handled an average caseload of 761 in December 2013, nearly 17 percent more than just four years ago.

The state did install a new phone system last year in an attempt to catch up with demand. But system glitches continue to cause long wait times and disruptions for both existing and potential food stamp recipients. The resulting backlog prompted a federal agency threat to impose penalties.

The state recently asked for a federal waiver to postpone eligibility screening for thousands of food stamp applicants before the May deadline to avoid the threatened penalties. The federal government granted the request, but this flexibility is just part of a short–term fix. It is past time for state leaders to calculate how many workers are required to run the program efficiently and budget enough money to get the job done.

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