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Long call wait times balk Missourians of federal food assistance

Just as the school year — and with it, free school lunches — was ending last spring, Erin Bay learned that her monthly food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was cut off. 

She was informed by the state that her son’s federal disability assistance put her about $65 over the income limit.

A increase in her cost of living inspired her to reapply Sept. 13. Months later, Bay, a single mother of five from Blue Springs, Mo., is still waiting to hear if her family is eligible.

Every day, she sits on hold for hours trying to get through to the Missouri Department of Social Services’ call center to set up the required interview — usually concluding with the call dropping.

Bay works 50 to 60 hours a week as a dialysis technician, but her children have a genetic disorder that impacts their physical ability to varying degrees.

“The SNAP benefits would absolutely go a long way to helping me reduce my hours and still be able to feed my children and pay my bills,” she said.

Bay’s struggle with the state’s food stamp program is not unique.

About half of the 47,000 SNAP applications the state received in September were rejected. That’s a 60 percent increase from the number of applications rejected in July.

In September, the state also saw a more than 30 percent drop in SNAP benefits going out. 

It all points back to the long call wait times, said Katherine Holley, an attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

“It’s sad to hear these stories about how people are trying to do what they need to do to maintain benefits, but just can’t access the agency,” Holley said. “Some people are opting out altogether. At a certain point, it’s just not worth it.”

These challenges have been consistent throughout the pandemic, and even before.

In order to get SNAP benefits or to be re-certified, residents have to go through an interview. 

But there’s no appointments for the calls, Holley said. The state’s call center will call the applicants at a random time. If applicants miss the call, they have to try and call back and get another interview. But the call center’s wait times are often hours long, she said.

“People are exhausted mentally,” Holley said. “Regularly, clients will cry on the phone about the frustration in working with the call center. It’s a tragedy.”

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act, Missouri received $3.4 million for administration expenses for the food stamps program, to use before Oct. 1. And for the next two fiscal years, Missouri will receive up to $6.2 million to help administer the program.  

However, it’s unclear how the state is spending the funds.

The Department of Social Services did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls seeking comment.

Decrease in benefits and households

Before the pandemic in February 2020, Missouri residents received about $80 million in federal food assistance. That number doubled in August 2021to nearly $160 million.

Now the numbers are on a steep decline, but it’s not because of a lack of need, service providers said. In September, residents received $105.2 million in SNAP benefits, and those numbers are likely to go down even further.

Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to end Missouri’s state of emergency in August triggered an end to families receiving the maximum amount of SNAP benefits. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, the federal government has allowed states to offer families the maximum SNAP assistance based on the number of people in their households.

For Missouri families, those additional payments ended Aug. 31.

Twenty-four states are still allowing families to receive the maximum SNAP benefits because they are operating under an emergency declaration, which is necessary to receive those federal funds. Missouri is actually still under a state of emergency, but it strictly addresses the shortage in health care personnel and other health-care actions.

Sarah Owsley, director of policy and advocacy for the nonprofit Empower Missouri, said the cutbacks would lead to inadequate access to SNAP benefits, which will harm children’s future.  

“We’re backsliding into a place where these kids are going to be back to having less to eat and less nutritious food on their tables,” she said.

Peter Merideth

The number of families receiving food stamps is already lower than it was four years ago. There are 332,700 households receiving SNAP benefits, which is about 20,000 less than in September 2016.

What’s most frustrating, said state Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, is that this is federal money that Missouri residents won’t be receiving because the state is putting up barriers.

“Any chance the state gets to cut benefits to poor people, they’re going to take it,” said Merideth, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “It’s just the reality of the administration we’ve got right now. They are convinced that benefits are keeping people from working.”

This article by Rebecca Rivas is published from The Missouri Independent via a Creative Commons license.

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