The Suffolk County seal at the H. Lee Dennison Building...

The Suffolk County seal at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

Long Island residents who are hungry shouldn't have to wait for the benefits earmarked to help them.

Suffolk County's failure to process in a timely fashion applications for food stamps, the federally funded program known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is an indictment of the county government's inability to handle one of its most basic and important functions: to care for its most vulnerable residents.

Last September, more than half of SNAP applications filed by Suffolk residents took longer than 30 days to process. By November, that statistic had improved — just slightly — to 49.3%. Meanwhile, in Nassau County, just 2.2% of applications in November took more than 30 days to process. Every month between June and November, Suffolk failed to process more than 1,000 SNAP applications within 30 days. During the same period, the number of applications Nassau didn't process within 30 days was less than 100 every month.

That information only emerged thanks to Newsday's reporting of data obtained by the Empire Justice Center, a legal advocacy group that filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the state's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

The consequence isn't just a bureaucratic snafu. Such delays can be devastating for individuals and families who need assistance. And the failure to properly administer the program has larger implications, too, as the percentage of families on SNAP directly impacts whether a school qualifies for free lunch programs. A family on SNAP also has access to other benefits, like summer grocery funds, they could lose without a processed application.

While other counties saw delays, Suffolk was among the worst performers during the Bellone administration. Explanations include the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in demand, the long-lasting aftermath of Suffolk's cyberattack, and staffing shortages at the county's Department of Social Services.

During his campaign last fall, County Executive Ed Romaine promised to make DSS a focus even before this data emerged, especially in the wake of the Thomas Valva tragedy. Now, he must double down, by hiring staff and analyzing how to end the delays.

But the state has to play a more extensive role, too. State officials say they're now reviewing the counties that have struggled, along with best practices in others. It shouldn't have taken months of poor performance for such an analysis to emerge or a Freedom of Information request to bring the problem to light. The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance should have a dashboard that highlights each county's performance in processing public assistance applications along with the tools and means to address delays as soon as they tick up, including the ability to discipline counties that perform poorly and miss deadlines to set their ships right.

People are hungry. Our public officials must administer the programs that can to help them — without delay.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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