The Nightmare of Benefits in Virginia

Written by REAL LIFE Intern, Anna Marston

As an intern at REAL LIFE, a key part of my responsibilities is to work with clients to apply for public benefits in Virginia. Government benefits may include SNAP (formerly called “food stamps”), Medicaid (public healthcare coverage), TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families), and more. From state to state, public benefits differ across cities and the structures of the financial assistance agencies.

With our amazing Lifers, we strive to give each and every client the opportunities to succeed, where public benefits are often a part of the financial mobility process.

“SNAP” stands for the “Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.” Before SNAP, the U.S. had the “Food Stamp Program” in 1939 in response to the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Through other pilot programs up through the 1960s and the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the program became a federal agency with food coupons. With the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the traditional food stamp program transitioned to the EBT System, standing for “Electronic Benefits Transfer.” By 2002, people across the nation were using EBT cards instead of stamps or coupons, and this is what ‘food stamp’ recipients continue to use today. Monthly benefits are loaded onto recipients’ cards and they can be used for food purchases at certain food retailers.

Furthermore, highly relevant to REAL LIFE is medical assistance. For low-income people, Medicaid serves as statewide healthcare coverage. Since 1965, Medicaid has operated on a state-by-state basis and each state operates as a distinct unit. Medicaid serves families, children, pregnant women, seniors, people with disabilities, and more, and much of the population that REAL LIFE uses Medicaid for medical coverage.

Each and every applicant endures a lengthy process to collect SNAP benefits or to receive Medicaid coverage. In Virginia, through a website called CommonHelp, applicants determine eligibility and apply for assistance. The application is quite intense and time-consuming. Once completed, the case is assigned to a caseworker and the applicants’ eligibility is determined. To reach a final decision for an applicant to receive medical or food assistance can take up to 45 days — wow!

For both SNAP and Medicaid, there are extreme barriers in the system that deter and prevent low-income people from accessing these services. A comprehensive report from the Food Research and Action Center outlines in detail these barriers, which include lack of awareness, stigma, arbitrary rules, unnecessary administrative burdens, and budgetary barriers. The website and contact information are also inaccessible to people with disabilities, people who are not literate, and people without internet access, contributing to this lack of awareness.

Part of our job at REAL LIFE is to break down these barriers and help clients achieve mobility and stability, yet the bureaucratic system has prevented people like me from doing so. For Lifers I work with to apply for and get approved for SNAP and Medicaid, it has grown harder and harder to do this during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In traditional times, we would be in-person working with clients and setting up appointments to work through the cases; however, in an ever-growing virtual world and lack of accessibility to the Richmond Department of Social Services, our clients are not being served how they should.

It is understandable that with a skyrocketing unemployment rate, infection and death rates, and heightened stress from COVID-19 that state agencies are suffering. With almost a year coming up on this pandemic, the lack of action by the state to meet the needs of residents is growing disheartening. What I mean by “lack of action” is that countless numbers of clients are having issues with their Medicaid and SNAP cases and their needs are not being met.

One of our Lifers applied for SNAP in November of 2020 and was approved almost immediately for a relatively high amount of benefits per month. Come February 2021, our Lifer had still not heard anything about his benefits or received his EBT Card in the mail. He would check in almost monthly to figure out what was wrong, but no one at Social Services got back to him. With a full-time job and no means of transportation, this Lifer was unable to drop everything and figure this out. When I stepped in to help the client, I faced extreme delays and holds when trying to get a hold of someone for his case. I waited on hold for hours upon end, starting from 8:00 in the morning all the way until closing time. I called multiple offices and hotlines at the citywide and statewide level, but I either got put on hold, hung up on, or given a number to my Lifer’s caseworker who was “on vacation.”

These caseworkers’ solutions were to call this caseworker who had been away from their phone and unresponsive to the client’s messages. It was disheartening to wait for hours and hear nothing from the Richmond Department of Social Services and Virginia’s state agency. Sarah and Jessica, my REAL LIFE supervisors, said I was not the first to run into this issue, as it had been getting worse and worse over the last few months.

Finally, after about a week of trying to get a hold of social services, I was able to get in contact with an administrator via email. I contacted every caseworker, department leader, and almost every member of the local and state offices I could find. Finally, I got a hold of someone to get in touch with the Lifer who needed his card. It was wonderful that we finally got ahold of someone to help, but it should not have taken this long.

With another Lifer, his SNAP benefits were abruptly cut off with the only warning coming from a written letter. The letter came in the mail to his REAL House while he was working and he did not see it; not noticing until his EBT Card was declined, he did not know what to do next. The Department of Social Services terminated his access to his main food supply without ample warning other than a letter–he was not even called once. Of course, when I tried to address this problem, the wait times were long and they sent me in circles to solve this issue.

As I described, the wait times were hours upon hours long; no matter what time of day, they were experiencing “higher than normal call volume.” It’s far too long for clients waiting to discuss healthcare needs and food assistance; hunger and medical help put life or death on the line, and COVID-19 does not pause that from happening. Many low-income people rely on cell phones with a limited number of minutes or they have full-time jobs, families, and personal responsibilities where staying on hold for extended periods of time is not feasible. Before COVID-19, people with disabilities and elderly people were unable to go in-person to get assistance, and phone calls are a reliable means of communication.

Amidst this pandemic, it is understandable that wait times would be a bit longer due to social distancing and a lack of ability to the local offices. Yet, after being in this for over a year, there has been NO plan from the state to take action against this issue. These long wait times were an issue BEFORE the pandemic happened, yet the state seems to be using it as a scapegoat for the long wait times and limits on benefits right now. It’s terrifying that an issue as prevalent as hunger is not being prioritized or expedited as so many are experiencing financial hardship. Nearly 12% of Americans struggle to get food on the table, yet SNAP continues to face problems with these long wait times, stringent eligibility requirements, and lack of response from state governments. The program remains too limiting, and some policymakers in the field argue that the SNAP system is currently failing the American people.

The pandemic has also put low-income individuals and families at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. For people on SNAP, even the highest-risk people have been forced to go to in-person grocery stores as most online grocery delivery services do not accept SNAP. In positive news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expediting a pilot designed in 2016 for online purchasing with SNAP benefits; in response to COVID-19, 17 states have joined the pilot program. Walmart, Amazon, and Amazon Fresh will join in on this program and it will likely begin in May.

Perhaps most importantly, Virginia has the capacity to streamline the program’s administration and make the process less bureaucratic. This was a policy proposal even prior to COVID-19, as it is outlined by the National Conference of State Legislatures in a policy brief from 2017. Federal action is needed, too, but the state government has the flexibility to remove barriers to enrollment in public benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid that I outlined previously. Many other states have streamlined the SNAP application process by creating SNAP enrollment locations at central locations, apart from the social services agency local to the area. We could also reduce barriers to the interview process and formulate ways for applicants to schedule appointments with caseworkers, rather than call and hope for a short wait time.

In New York, 15% of the recent COVID Relief Package went to SNAP benefits. Not only does Virginia need additional funding, but we need greater incentives to cut these wait times drastically and get people the relief they need.