Social services feeling the pinch

It is Monday morning, and Kimberly Jefferson stares at a stack of new applications for food stamps.

Jefferson, director of the Goochland department of social services, has seen applications for government assistance increase by 50 percent since 2008.

“We are seeing more and more people who have never been on food stamps,” Jefferson said. “[Houses with] two people working, dual-incomes, with one or more laid-off. We’re seeing a lot of new faces.”

Effective October 1, the federal government increased income limits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP, formerly called the Food Stamp Program, is intended for nutritional food purchases only, and can not be used to buy a meal at a restaurant.

For a family of two, the net income limit is $1,215, which is also the poverty level threshold. For each additional household member, the income limit increases by $406.

According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, the income limit adjustments are intended to reflect inflation and cost of living changes. This allows more people to be eligible for services, but it also exacerbates the strain on an already overloaded social service network.

Jefferson said that when applicants earn above the income limit, her staff works with them to find alternative services through the Goochland Free Clinic or the Community Action Agency.

Susan Muir, director of Fluvanna DSS, said that her office was understaffed by eight people before the increase in applications began in late 2007.

“We certainly don’t have the staff to take care of the rise in applications,” Muir said.

According to VDSS, the number of SNAP cases in Fluvanna has increased by 51 percent since 2008. The amount of money paid out has increased by nearly 120 percent.

Fluvanna employs 23 full-time social service positions, and Muir said that they are understaffed by more than 30 percent.

A VDSS report generated by Hornby Zeller Associates, Inc., confirmed that social service departments in Virginia may be understaffed by more than 1,000 full-time employees.

“The state needs to step up to the plate,” said Bob Lingo, director of Orange DSS. “We’ve gone beyond the rising tide–it’s a flood.”

Lingo said the increase in applications compounds the workers’ case loads because every six months the applications must be reviewed.

In April, counties received stimulus funds for SNAP benefits, and some districts also received funds to help with administrative costs. But county officials are concerned that temporary jobs created by stimulus funding will not solve long-terms problems.

“Hiring new workers takes time to train,” Lingo said. “Stimulus money lasts, really, for only 15 months.”

Orange DSS employs 25 people, and like other localities, has shifted employees’ responsibilities to meet the increase in demand.

“We have a number of programs, and the standards are different with each program,” Lingo said, adding that retraining staff to perform new duties is also time-consuming.

Goochland employs 20 full-time employees, including an emergency eligibility worker.

Jefferson said that her office has been able to handle the increase in case-loads.

Orange employs several independent contractors for ongoing services, Lingo said, to help administer the increase in applications.

Lingo added that food stamps are “the perfect measure of the economy. Other [social services] programs have certain criteria, but anyone can walk into our office and apply for food stamps.”

Originally published in The Central Virginian

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