For the last two years, food stamps have been issued at an average of $1.7 million per month in Sampson County as caseloads and the number of individuals served through the Food and Nutrition Services have experienced dramatic increases from figures not long ago.
According to statistics provided by the Sampson County Department of Social Services, in May, there were 6,659 active food stamp cases that accounted for 14,662 individuals in the county receiving just under $1.7 million in food assistance. In June, those numbers rose to 6,683 cases involving 14,739 individuals, and to 6,704 cases involving 14,817 individuals being served in July.
Those numbers are nearly twice that from five years ago. However, as cases have increased, manpower to handle them has not — that has necessitated a state-initiated shift toward increased efficiency through automation.
N.C. Fast (Families Accessing Services through Technology) is a system of automated tools for DSS workers to quickly assess clients’ needs and determine if they are eligible for public assistance. Sampson has been one of several counties involved in the first wave of implementation in the state. It also allows workers to see case information securely and confidentially, so they can better coordinate services across program areas.
That automation program has been at the forefront of training for DSS employees in recent weeks and N.C. FAST will begin its implementation in Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), where cases are booming. A soft launch will begin this coming week.
“There is a learning curve to any new process, and the Department of Health and Human Services and the program pilot counties have worked diligently to work out the kinks and ensure implementation issues are resolved in subsequent counties such as Sampson,” assistant county manager Susan Holder said.
A federal food assistance program, FNS helps low-income families by way of monthly allotments of benefits issued via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. The goal is to ensure needy families do not go hungry or are deprived of proper nutrition and good health. Benefits may be used to purchase most foods at participating stores, but cannot be used to purchase tobacco, pet food, paper products, soap products or alcoholic beverages.
Persons may qualify for food stamps if they work for low wages, are unemployed or part-time, receive welfare or other assistance payments or are elderly or disabled and live on a small income. FNS is an entitlement program, so all eligible individuals and households can receive assistance upon meeting an income test. Income limits vary by household size, and applicants may be eligible for Food and Nutrition Services if their total income falls below the appropriate gross income limits for their household size.
Thus, rising numbers are indicative of falling households incomes, joblessness and a down economy, officials said.
In the past year, Sampson County’s caseload has peaked at 6,735 in December and the amount issued was largest in October, when $1.73 million was distributed. The numbers in the past year, dating back to July 2011, has fallen anywhere from 6,455 to 6,735 total cases, 14,399 to 14,852 individuals served and a total of $1.66 to $1.73 million in assistance provided.
Those numbers are a far cry from years past.
While the amount distributed was not greatly changed from the average amount of $1.69 million per month during 2010-11, the average monthly caseload in 2010-11 was 6,115, more than 300 cases below 2011-12’s low water mark.
Statistics for Sampson County, provided by the county and available through the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Social Services database, show the numbers have risen significantly over the years.
Whereas there were 6,704 cases serving 14,817 individuals through food stamps assistance last month, that is more than 400 more than were served in July 2011, which saw 14,399 individuals assisted in 6,455 cases. In July 2010, there were 5,487 cases serving 12,584 individuals; in July 2009, there were 4,820 cases serving 11,116 individuals; and in July 2008, 8,830 individuals served through 3,874 cases.
In July 2007, five years ago, there were 3,482 cases and 8,042 who received assistance in Sampson County. That means that cases have nearly doubled since that time, at a 92.5 percent increase, while there are almost 7,000 more people being served via food assistance, itself a massive 84 percent climb.
DSS has seen an increase almost across the board in the need for services, and employees and resources have been stretched — and then stretched some more.
DSS director Sarah Bradshaw talked last month about a move toward automation of services through programs like N.C. FAST, which will include a change in delivery of Food and Nutrition Services at the outset. Other programs will follow, however FNS was identified as a pressing need.
An ongoing business redesign movement at the state level has seen a push toward efficiency that will include simplifying programs and aligning eligibility processes, notably via automation, in an effort to maximize resources so that growing caseloads and clients will not necessitate more personnel to serve them.
Sampson County DSS, part of the first phase of such automation, started the N.C. FAST training for staff last month and continued that training through Friday. Along with giving caseworkers the tools to quickly identify and assess client needs and determine eligibility, N.C. FAST will allow for comprehensive management so cases can be tracked, information shared and services coordinated across program areas and county lines.
That means that while the numbers may not soon change, the resources it takes to maneuver the eligibility processes and issue some $1.7 million in food stamps as part of nearly 7,000 cases, may not be as stretched as they have been.
Last month, Bradshaw cited a three-month window it would take to be able to be fully automated on the FNS side. Leading up to that point, a “soft launch” of N.C. FAST would mean that some applications would be processed electronically, while others are done manually as has been traditionally done.
That soft launch will begin this week. It is an approach whereby the old FSIS (Food Stamp Information System) will remain up and running while newly trained workers use N.C. FAST to process new applications, Bradshaw noted. She and others have noted a learning curve involved in any transition to a new system.
“Once Social Services departments show success in the use of the new NC FAST, they will transition fully to the new system,” Holder said. “This fail-safe method will assure that clients get the best possible service during the implementation period.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.