While the state struggles to catch up with a backlog of more than 1,600 food stamp cases to meet a March 31 federal deadline, some who have finally received their benefits have discovered they aren't what they used to be.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos, speaking to a General Assembly oversight committee Wednesday, told lawmakers that county social service offices and state employees will have to work hard to meet requirements laid out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"All of us have our work cut out for us over the next 19 days," she said. "The counties and the state must again work tirelessly."
The state already met a Feb. 10 deadline from the USDA to handle more than 20,000 applications and renewals pending for more than 90 days. USDA had threatened the loss of $88 million to continue administering the program unless the deadline was met.
Now they must resolve applications waiting longer than 30 days and emergency requests for assistance waiting longer than seven days.
Patty Ragusa knows how crucial eliminating the backlog is because her disabled sons are caught in it.
"I don't have any money and they don't have any money," Ragusa said. "They didn't expect his to happen. They thought they'd get $112 each, and they're not getting anything now."
In addition to waiting for their benefits to be restored, there's another problem. Some are finding that when they receive their benefits, they have been cut significantly.
"My food stamps went from $189 to $18. This has been going on for the last two months," said Justin Guagliano. "Originally they didn't give me anything and it took two months just to get the $18."
Bill Dubois had a similar experience, explain that his benefits were cut from $120 to $21.
"It's enough for a gallon of milk once a week for a month," Dubois said.
Dubois now relies on the food pantry to fill the gap; and staff at the Catholic Parish Outreach Food Pantry believes as more people see cuts in their benefits, the food pantry will start to see a huge increase in customers coming in.
"If they continue to have backlogs, we'll really start to see the impact of it in April and May," Program Director Terry Foley said.
Until then, Foley said tax season is providing a bit of relief as some use their returns to buy food instead of relying on food stamps.
"People are starting to get their tax refunds back, so they're going to the grocery store and buying food instead of coming to food pantries like us," Foley said.
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