The New Big Dig
In July 2008, we followed up on a Boston Globe article which reported Massachusetts was the fastest growing food stamps/SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) program in the nation. As advocates the members of the Food Stamp/SNAP Improvement Coalition, including United Way, welcomed the news. For many years, Massachusetts tallied some of the lowest rates of participation for eligible households and, as a result, lost millions of dollars in federal aid. In response, the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) and our coalition of community agencies, with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.), committed to improving program access by expanding outreach efforts, simplifying applications, and addressing barriers.
Nevertheless, in the heels of that great success, we have a new problem. As the economic situation continues to worsen, a much larger number of individuals are now eligible for food stamps/SNAP in the Commonwealth. Yet, the number of caseworkers has been reduced by 25% since 2000 when the caseload was at its lowest point. DTA estimates that each worker carries a load of 700 cases and, with as many as 20,000 new applications and 18,000 requests for recertification each month, the numbers are growing rapidly. Furthermore, there are still an estimated 470,000 individuals in Massachusetts eligible for SNAP benefits, but not enrolled.
The solution to the problem proposed by the Food SNAP Improvement Coalition is multi-pronged: First, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) –commonly known as the Stimulus Bill- provides additional food stamp/SNAP benefits, and does allocate resources to support the program’s administration locally. These resources can be used to hire more caseworkers to help process incoming applications. Secondly, DTA can explore collaboration with other state agencies to share client information. For instance, the majority of MassHealth and a portion of unemployment insurance recipients are also eligible for food stamps; nevertheless, these benefits are processed and verified separately. Not only does this burden the applicant and exclude potential recipients, but it taxes the state’s infrastructure. Thirdly, the Commonwealth can request federal waivers to extend the period of eligibility for recipients. These extensions would be consistent with the goal of the Stimulus Bill, and would allow caseworkers to focus their efforts on new or questionable applications.
The impact of the economic crisis is rearing its ugly head in many places, and the Department of Transitional Assistance is no exception. DTA has been feeling the pinch of a tightening budget, while trying to fulfill a much larger demand for services. At the same time, the agency has done a remarkable job improving the program in the last few years. If the DTA is able to implement some of these ideas, it will further support the safety net and draw in additional resources to stimulate the local economy.
The economic stimulus effect of the food stamp/SNAP program has been well documented. The USDA has found that each $1 in food stamp/SNAP benefits generates $1.84 in economic activity. Moody’s Economy estimates a multiplier of $1.73 for each dollar spent, and has found that food stamp/SNAP benefits are the most effective of all government programs in creating economic activity. Taking these findings into account, if the DTA were able to process and approve just half of the 20,000 new applications coming in each month, Massachusetts would increase its food stamp/SNAP rolls by 110,000. Since these benefits are 100% federally funded, the state could receive upwards of $340 million more per year. In the end, Massachusetts could generate more than half a billion dollars in additional economic activity, and that is food for thought...