Let’s fight the good fight.

July 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

by Wendy Heiges, Senior Director of Advocacy and Public Policy

I am proud to say the Capital Area Food Bank knows how to respond to emergencies.  We get nutritious food out to food pantries and soup kitchens feeding people in acute need.  We’re delivering nutritious boxes of food to families at risk of hunger this summer. We’re feeding hungry children this summer when they don’t receive school meals.  We’re out in rural communities where it’s difficult for vulnerable people to get the food they need.  We’re talking to people who might qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).  We’re helping them through the cumbersome application process. We’re preparing to process SNAP applications as part of a pilot program with Texas food banks. We’ve expanded our activities to match increased needs. As a top-rated charity with Charity Navigator, we maximize resources provided to us by our generous supporters.  We’re proactive. We deliver on our promises to help hungry families in Central Texas.  And we expect no less from our state government.

Earlier this week, Texas was fined nearly $4 million for errors it made last year processing applications for SNAP. The fine is a further embarrassment for a state ranked #2 for the number of households at risk of hunger between 2006 and 2009.  In 2008, almost 16% of Texans lived in poverty.  That’s 3.8 million people struggling at the height of the Great Recession in November 2008.

Not only is the fine an embarrassment, it speaks to other issues about the state’s inability to respond to the needs of its residents.  According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, our country plunged into the recession in December 2007.  Why wasn’t the state prepared for a surge of applications for SNAP benefits due to widespread unemployment?  Before the recession hit, Texas outsourced processing SNAP applications, resulting in layoffs of experienced staff.  Problems started piling up; and when the state finally terminated the private contract in 2007, it didn’t direct the necessary funding to rehire qualified staff and streamline onerous administrative procedures.  By the time the recession was official, it was too late for newly food-insecure families, not to mention those who’d been trying to obtain their SNAP benefits for months. Throw rising food and fuel prices into the mix, and struggling families were dealing with problems of epic proportions.

All of these factors combined to place additional pressure on food banks.  Food banks and their partner agencies make heroic efforts to serve people in need in a state with unprecedented hunger and poverty rates.  Before the economy completely tanked we reported a more than 60 percent increase in clientele. The pressure has intensified with the economic downturn and remains today.

Those problems of epic proportions?  They haven’t disappeared just yet.

What I find so appalling is Texas’ plans to divert taxpayer dollars to litigate and appeal the nearly $4 million fine.  These dollars should be used to feed hungry people.  And how will an expensive appeal process help reduce the state’s looming $18 billion deficit?  According to Governor Perry, “Every penny we save now in the 2010-11 biennium is one penny closer to balancing the budget in the next legislative session.”

While the nearly $4 million fine for errors in 2009 is certainly evidence of problems, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) has made significant improvements, including hiring staff and improving technology.  But the fine should be a wake-up call for Texas to do more—hiring even more qualified staff to ensure SNAP applications are processed accurately, simplifying administrative procedures, and eliminating finger imaging and the asset test.

USDA has offered to reduce the $4 million fine by half if Texas takes that $2 million to direct toward improving management of SNAP.  Rather than appeal the fine, Texas should take advantage of the waiver to help people at risk of hunger, show wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars, and support local retailers through the economic stimulus SNAP provides: when a recipient spends $5 of SNAP benefits, $9 are generated for local economies.

Our state’s focus should be on strengthening this vital program.  The fight shouldn’t be in court.  If a fight’s to be had, it should be on behalf of low-income people in Texas – for their nourishment, health and well-being.

Let’s fight the good fight.

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