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N.C. Department of Health and Human Services staff confirmed Thursday that dealing with the massive backlog of food stamps cases cost  $21 million in unanticipated costs, in overtime and other costs at both the state and county level.

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

Now, state officials are hoping that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that oversees the food stamps program and had previously threatened to rescind $88 million in funding, will cover some of those costs.

On March 27, DHHS officials requested an additional $12 million from USDA officials to cover costs incurred at the county level, according to documents released Thursday afternoon by DHHS.

A spokesperson from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services division confirmed the agency received the request and are reviewing it.

A backlog that eventually grew to between 20,000 and 30,000 low-income families waiting for food assistance stemmed from the state’s implementation last year of a complicated benefits delivery system, called N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology.). USDA officials wrote state Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos letters in December and January saying agency officials were alarmed by the delays that “create undue hardship for the most vulnerable citizens of North Carolina.”

On Tuesday, USDA confirmed that state officials had succeeded in meeting deadlines to clear the backlog and said it would continue to monitor the state.

The recent request for additional federal funding says that counties hired temporary workers and moved staff to deal with the backlog.

“The increase is due to the drastic increases over the last year in county staff payroll to keep up with the back log of applications for SNAP,” stated a budget narrative from DHHS, “The increased caseloads, during a time we have implemented a new computer system that will speed up the certification process for clients for multiple programs simultaneously, has placed our counties in a situation where the current staff dedicated to SNAP was not sufficient to process applications.”

N.C. Policy Watch first requested information and details about the budget overages for the food stamps program on March 31. Information was not provided until Thursday afternoon, as state lawmakers received an update about the N.C. FAST program. (Scroll down to see document released by DHHS.)

North Carolina’s public records law states that all documents created in the course of public businesses belong to the public itself, and require government agencies to provide access to records “as promptly as possible.”

Several media outlets have detailed issues accessing public records under Wos’ tenure. An Associated Press reporter waited seven months for DHHS to respond to a request for work product records related to Joe Hauck, a DHHS consulate with personal connections to Wos. The news agency reported it ultimately received a handful of memorandums for Hauck, who earned $310,000 from the state agency for 11 months of work.

Also in March, the News & Observer reported it and Raleigh television station WRAL asked last September for records related to the sudden departure of state’s Medicaid director Carol Steckel, who left less than nine months after being hired.  Months after the request, no records have been released.

In case you haven’t heard, the reason that women get paid less ($0.77 on average to every $1 a man makes) is that women prefer to settle for lower-earning jobs in order to seek out mates that earn more.

Phyllis Schlafy, source: Christian PostAt least, that’s what conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly said in this rather amazing column against equal pay yesterday in the Christian Post. You can read the entire column here.

Among the gems from her column:

Women place a much higher value on pleasant working conditions: a clean, comfortable, air-conditioned office with congenial co-workers. Men, on the other hand, are more willing to endure unpleasant working conditions to earn higher pay, doing dirty, dangerous outside work

and

Perhaps an even more important reason for women’s lower pay is the choices women make in their personal lives, such as having children. Women with children earn less, but childless women earn about the same as men.

Another fact is the influence of hypergamy, which means that women typically choose a mate (husband or boyfriend) who earns more than she does. Men don’t have the same preference for a higher-earning mate. Read More

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced yesterday that North Carolina health officials successfully cleared a backlog of food stamps cases that had been in the tens of thousands last year following issues with a statewide technology system.

At stake was $88 million in federal funding, which USDA, which oversees the national SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), said it would consider rescinding if the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services didn’t quickly clear the backlog.

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Michelle Ford hasn’t received food stamp allotments since December, and the Greensboro mother says she’s out of options in trying to feed herself and her three children.

“We don’t have anything to eat,” Ford said. “This the way it’s been for the last two months, it seems like it’s just getting worse and worse.”

Ford usually receives $692 in food stamps a month to keep her family fed, but her January benefits never appeared. She said she’s neglected paying her light bill, car payment and other bills in order to keep her family fed.

“It’s been horrible,” she said, her voice clenched with tears. Her 18-year-old daughter stays with friends in order to get meals at night and was fired from a job at a McDonald’s stemming over a dispute about food she was taking to share with her family.

Ford’s problems come despite the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services declaring it has “reasonably achieved” an April 1 deadline set by federal officials to resolve a backlog of federally-funded food stamps cases statewide that had been in the tens of thousands for needy families.

A backlog of food stamps cases persisted for most of 2013 in the state when DHHS fully implemented a complicated benefits delivery system called N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services Through Technology). County-level workers struggled to get the system to work, and cases piled up with some going weeks or months without needed food assistance. ncfast

In Guilford County, where Ford lives, the state discovered in the week before the April 1 deadline that workers had been keeping as many as 8,1000 recertification cases in a separate system then the N.C. FAST benefits delivery system. The head of the county’s social services director resigned shortly after the backlog became public.

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For Lunch Links today, here’s a few things that have caught my attention. Fair warning, there’s a bit of doom and gloom in here.

The News & Observer had this article about one of the effects of the declining unemployment rate and last year’s changes to North Carolina’s unemployment benefits – those without jobs could see a reduction in how they can collect unemployment. It could push the maximum for benefits down to  14 weeks when the length of benefits is recalibrated in July.

From the article:

The maximum number of weeks that North Carolina’s jobless can receive unemployment checks is expected to decline significantly again in July because state law ties the benefits to the state’s declining unemployment rate.

The prospect of four or five fewer weeks of unemployment checks for workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own is bemoaned by advocates for the poor. They argue that the job market remains quite challenging.

“The fact that we are seeing a decline in the unemployment rate is really masking the persistent and high joblessness in our state,” said Alexandra Forter Sirota, director of the Budget & Tax Center at the N.C. Justice Center, an advocacy group for the poor and working class. “Many workers do not have employment opportunities despite wanting to work.”

(Disclosure: The Budget and Tax Center that Sirota leads is, like Policy Watch, are part of the N.C. Justice Center, a statewide anti-poverty group)

The declining length of unemployment benefits  certainly won’t be welcome news on the western edge of the state in Graham County, where the rural mountain county’s biggest employer announced last week it is planning on shutting down a furniture plant that employed 400 people.

Carolina’s Public Press, a non-profit news organization that concentrates on Western North Carolina, had this story about the potentially devastating effect this could have in a county already contending with unemployment rates of 13 to 14 percent.

“I think it’s going to be bad,” 80-year-old retired postal worker J.C. Payne told the news organization. “Outside of that, we have no industry left. When 400 (lose jobs) in a county that does not have a big population, that’s a big chunk.”

Today’s release of county labor force figures (click here to see the non-seasonably adjusted numbers) show that 13.8 percent of residents in Graham County were looking for work, more than any other county and more than twice the state’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate of 6.4 percent.

I’ll end with some sad news, though news without any obvious North Carolina connections.

The Associated Press is reporting this morning that Lacey Holsworth, the 8-year-old friend of Michigan State basketball player Adreian Payne has died.

The player and young cancer patient struck up a friendship when Michigan State’s basketball team visited a pediatric ward several years ago. The Detroit Free Press has a number of videos up about the unlikely friendship, including this touching video.

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