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Food stamp requests rise on Long Island

Joseph Bonilla, of Freeport, said he reluctantly applied

Joseph Bonilla, of Freeport, said he reluctantly applied for food stamps after being laid off from Nassau County's probation department. His wife, a dental assistant, also lost her job, and the couple were concerned about providing for their two children. The family was turned down for making too much in unemployment. (April 17, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Danielle Finkelstein

Food stamp requests are surging in Nassau and Suffolk counties, creating lengthy delays in getting assistance to families.

Food stamp caseloads have more than doubled since 2008 -- to 37,500 in Nassau and 53,400 in Suffolk -- because of the recession and state efforts to streamline applications and encourage participation in the program, officials said.

Numerous Long Island families now are waiting beyond the 30-day federal limit for determinations about whether they're eligible for food stamps.

As of December, Suffolk had 368 such cases, compared with only 27 in December 2009, the most recent state statistics show.

Nassau had 251 overdue cases as of March, up from 116 in the year before. But while county officials say the recession and the state push to spur more applicants are fueling continuing delays, Nassau has brought down the number of overdue cases dramatically compared with 2008 and 2009, when the number ranged from about 500 to 1,500 per month.

"Even if it's just one applicant that's waiting longer than the limit, that's one person worrying about where their next meal will come from," said Linda Hassberg, an attorney in the Central Islip office of the Empire Justice Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group that has filed federal lawsuits against both counties over the delays.

Jennifer Verdi-Nolan, 34, of Shirley, plans to apply for food stamps, and she's worried about the prospect of a long wait.

Her three children recently were dropped from Suffolk's subsidized child care program due to budget cuts. Verdi-Nolan said she quit her job because she couldn't afford the full cost of day care for her kids on her $604 biweekly salary as an instructor to developmentally disabled adults. Verdi-Nolan said she needs foods stamps to make ends meet.

"I have enough to get us through the end of the month, but I don't know about after that," Verdi-Nolan said.


Concern about delays

While the counties have been able to reduce the average number of days it takes to process food stamp applications by half over the past three years -- currently 29 days in Nassau and 20 days in Suffolk -- social services advocates say they're still concerned about the cases that continue to exceed federal time limits.

"How do you fathom it taking four weeks for a hungry family to learn if they're eligible for food stamps?" said Paule Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares, a nonprofit regional food bank in Hauppauge.

Nassau and Suffolk's social services commissioners say they bring in workers from other units when backlogs develop. However, they note that the economic conditions driving more applicants to their doors also are preventing the counties from hiring more social workers to process the requests.

"It's always a challenge when you have an increase in service demand and a decrease in staff," said Nassau Social Services Commissioner John Imhof.

Nassau's social services department has lost more than 120 workers since 2007 through layoffs and attrition, leaving the department with some 900 employees. During the same period, the county saw a 130 percent rise in food stamp caseloads.

Suffolk County has managed to add 193 social workers since 2007 -- a 13 percent increase. But Social Services Commissioner Gregory Blass said the increase pales in comparison to the county's 168 percent increase in food stamp cases over the same period.

"We have special teams that deal with emerging backlogs before they get serious, but it's shoveling against the tide as of now," Blass said.

The federal government covers the full cost of food stamps and pays up to 50 percent of wages of county employees who administer the program. This year, Suffolk received $16 million in funding, up from $4.5 million in 2008. Nassau received $9.8 million, compared with $3.2 million in 2008.

Overall, Nassau's social services budget grew 13 percent from $462 million in 2007 to $524 million in 2012. Suffolk's budget grew 17 percent from $538.3 million to $627.6 million over the past six years.

Nassau and Suffolk aren't alone in trying to catch up with social services caseloads.

Reduced federal audits

Thomas Gais, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University of Albany, said that while social services departments long have struggled to process welfare applications in a timely manner, the recession has exacerbated delays. He noted that over the past decade, the federal government also has scaled back on audits and penalties for state and county departments.

"It's become more of an issue as many state and local departments have seen a reduction in their workforce," Gais said.

In 2011, the state launched an online application system and this year announced the elimination of finger printing requirements, all part of an effort to get more eligible residents to apply for food stamps. During his state of the state address in January, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said 30 percent of New Yorkers who are eligible for food stamps -- over 1.4 million people -- do not apply, resulting in $1 billion in unclaimed federal funds last year.

Joseph Bonilla, of Freeport, said he reluctantly applied for food stamps after being laid off from Nassau County's probation department in December. His wife, a dental assistant, also lost her job that month, and the couple were concerned about providing for their two children. After a three-week wait, the family was turned down for making too much in unemployment.

"It was stressful to wait all that time to learn you didn't qualify," Evelyn Bonilla said.

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