North Carolina’s food stamps program continues to face major problems in how it operates and monitors federal funds for low-income families struggling to get food on their tables, according to a recent report by federal officials.
A strongly worded management evaluation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program listed more than 38 faults with North Carolina’s system, ranging from “critical findings” regarding a lack of oversight at the state level to regulatory violations about what is included on applications for food assistance.
“There are critical findings in the Claims/TOP area that are related to a lack of State oversight and monitoring,” read one finding in the 19-page report. (Scroll down to read the report itself.)
The major findings also included a “lack of State oversight in Recipient Integrity” that led to instances of potential fraud not being referred to for prosecution and “serious findings” in the state’s employment and training program.
The Sept. 10 management evaluation rested on visits that officials from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service office made in May and June where operations were observed at the state level, as well as in social services offices in Guilford, Pitt and Wake counties.
It requires DHHS to provide a corrective action plan within the next 60 days.
The report came on the heels of a major breakdwon in North Carolina’s food stamps delivery system last year that left thousands of low-income families without access to food assistance for weeks or months. The problems were attributed to glitches in a new technology system, N.C. FAST (Families Assessing Services through Technology) and issues that county-level workers had in accessing the new system while struggling under heavy caseloads.
USDA threatened to cut off more than $80 million in funding if the state didn’t quickly resolve backlogs that topped 30,000 households waiting for help in December.
DHHS communications staff said it would only answer questions Thursday about USDA’s recent findings if questions were put in writing.*
The agency did issue a written statement from Sherry Bradsher, a deputy secretary in charge of human services, that said DHHS was primarily focused on getting benefits to applicants during last year’s crisis.
“None of the findings prevented clients from receiving benefits,” Bradsher said in a written statement. “Many of the issues the USDA cited were administrative in nature, while some of the issues have never been raised before. There are some findings with which DHHS disagrees, and we are currently reviewing our options with those.”
A USDA spokesperson said the federal agency will be working with North Carolina to ensure the state fixes the regulatory, oversight and program deficiencies noted in the report.
“SNAP is one of our country’s strongest defenses against hunger and poverty and a critical support for eligible low-income families in North Carolina so we take the proper administration of this important program seriously,” USDA spokesperson Johnathan Monroe said in a written statement. “It is incumbent upon the State to resolve these problems in a responsible manner that is consistent with federal statute and regulations.”
DHHS asked federal officials for $12 million to cover the overtime and other costs incurred while clearing the backlogs of food stamps cases in 2013 and 2014. USDA agreed to reimburse the state for $7 million of those costs, Monroe said.
In a legislative hearing last week, DHHS officials said wait times for food stamps were greatly diminished from last year, with 741 people whose application for food stamps were overdue in late August, and 846 recertifications pending beyond the allowable amount of time.
*Note: This version has changed from its original to reflect that DHHS officials would not answer questions Thursday about the report unless those questions were put in writing.