Commentary: August 18, 2010: Seven Days


Column by then-Seven Days columnist Shay Totten:

“During the last legislative session, Democrats repeatedly promised they were not renegotiating the ‘social contract with Vermonters,’ even as they largely went along with the State to cut taxes, trim spending and eliminate state jobs. To prove it, they liberalized the state’s definition of poverty, meaning more Vermonters could qualify for economic help. They also OK’d a massive “modernization” effort to simplify the process of applying for benefits. Eventually, people will be able to sign up online and communicate with state workers over the phone rather than in person.

And more Vermonters are asking for help: In June 2008, 23,000 households and 51,000 individuals received 3SquaresVT, formerly known as “food stamps.” By June 2010 those numbers had exploded to 43,000 and 86,000, respectively. On average, food-stamp recipients receive $1 per meal. Comparatively, [a top State official] gets $61 a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year for three squares; lawmakers get $61 a day for meals during the session.

Meanwhile, fewer state workers are on hand to process applications, and a crucial computer upgrade hasn’t happened.

The result? Instead of receiving benefits within 30 days of filing an application, Vermonters now have to wait 60 to 80.

The state used to make very few processing errors. Because of its excellent record, the feds forked over $2.8 million, money the state used to fund its “modernization” plan.

Vermont has since toppled from among the top 10 error-free states to 44th. Its mistake rate is now higher than 7 percent, according to Department for Children and Families Commissioner Steve Dale. If that rate persists for two fiscal years, the state could be penalized.

Dale doesn’t think it will come to that, but he admits there is insufficient staff to meet demand.

An electronic application process that was supposed to be online this past winter, and then July, is now scheduled for October. In the meantime, staffers are expending valuable time and resources manually scanning new applications into a central database.

“We didn’t really understand the consequences of the delay until just recently,” said Dale. “There’s no question that the increase in demand, too, has been more than expected given the economic climate.”

Call-center inquiries have spiked, too, from people wondering about their tardy benefits claims.

That call center is understaffed and workers are feeling the pressure, according to an employee who asked to remain anonymous.

“When we started, we were told that 60 was the average [number of] calls that they expected each would do. Some of the agents are taking 100 to 120 per day,” the worker noted. “Some of us end up working overtime because the calls are backed up in the queue 30 minutes or more. The supervisors will then step in and take names and numbers, and we stay late to call them back.”

The call center is supposed to have 22 staffers, but budget cuts have left it with only 16. Two additional workers will soon be added, and another eight temporary workers are being trained to provide backup support during peak call times, Dale said.

“What is happening right now is unacceptable,” he said, “and we’re going to make it right. People are putting in an incredible effort to make sure [Vermonters] get their benefits. We have to turn this around.” Food-stamp delays mean some individuals will have to make difficult choices.

’The ripple effect is not just that people are waiting three months for food-stamps benefits, but what they now spend on food leaves less money for rent or electricity, and soon for heating,’ said Angela Smith-Dieng of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. “Unfortunately, I think it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”

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