My SNAP Adventure part one

As I have mentioned in the past, because the focus of my year of service is food justice, my house mates and I are participating in two eating challenges. The first ran from September to the end of January and we ate only local food. While that challenge was definitely challenging, I think the lessons learned from it were not quite as applicable to daily life as my second challenge. From February first to the end of July we will no longer receive a food stipend and will instead depend on SNAP. I have been in the application process for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – which is the actual name of “food stamps”- since December 28th. The process is supposed to take 30 days, however it’s been nearly 2 months and I am still not quite done. My overall review of the process is that it is infuriating and I have a new level of sympathy for people that depend on this as their only source to feed their families. I am a well educated, fairly intelligent person with English as my first language and this process has been confusing and unexpectedly difficult. I don’t mean for that sentence to sound like an insult to other people applying for assistance; I just want to acknowledge my own privilege and let it be know that I understand how much more difficult this may be for others.

I imagine some may know what the application process for SNAP is like, but many may have never thought about it so I would like to tell you about my experience.

You first start with an application. I’m fortunate to have my own laptop so I can easily go online to fill out an application. That is a task all its own for someone that has to go to a public library to get internet access. Now I would say that I have a relatively good grasp of the English language and I found the application very confusing. Language is never defined so it is difficult to know if you should consider yourself the “head of household”, the “household representative”, or something else. My housemates filled out their applications together, but I was out of town that day so I was left to figure it out on my own. Because of this, I entered some differing information (I couldn’t begin to explain what) and was classified as a “head of household”. As far as I know this hasn’t made any difference in any of our applications but the distinction is curious.

After the confusing application was submitted I was scheduled for a phone interview, but I had no control over when this interview was scheduled. I received a letter in the mail saying the day and time my interview would be and that I could call to reschedule if need be. I got lucky and it was scheduled on a day I work from home; however I can imagine how hard that must be for people working multiple jobs without flexible schedules. So Monday at 1pm came and went and I never got a call. I tried calling the DTA (Department of Transitional Assistance) to make my interview happen that same day, but I got a recording that said they had abnormally high call volumes and then the phone disconnected. After trying a few times I accepted that there was nothing I could do so I stopped calling. A few days later I got a letter in the mail that said I failed to keep my appointment and if I did not reschedule and complete my interview within two weeks I would be denied. I called again and got the same message of high call volume but this time was given an option to select a request for a call back. (As promised) within one business day I was called by a DTA agent that had no idea why I requested a call back. Once again I got lucky and the guy had a few minutes so he completed my interview while I sat in traffic on my way home from work. The questions were almost identical to the information I provided in my application. He asked what bills I paid (rent, utilities, medications, etc), where I worked, what my income was, if I lived with anyone; all the things you would expect. Why this needed to be said over the phone and in an online application is beyond me. But the guy was perfectly pleasant and got my application moving. Now after giving the same information twice, I was then told that I needed to mail in proof of the same information. So I mailed a hard copy of my driver’s license to prove my I.D. and a letter written by the YAV program proving my residence and income. I was also asked to fill out the Head of Household Shared Housing form- something my housemates didn’t do- because of whatever different information I put in my application.

Here is where things get the weirdest. At this point everything was in and I was told to wait for a decision to be mailed to me. I waited from January 15th to February 17th (longer than the entire application process is supposed to take) until I got really impatient and called the DTA. Not surprisingly, they were experiencing high call volumes so I requested a call back. Again, within one business day a very nice woman called me and asked what I needed. I told her I wanted to know the status of my application and she said it was pending. Apparently you have to call to have them make a decision on your case. The same thing happened to one of my other housemates. Our cases were finished, but without us pushing it along, no one processes the pending cases. From what I understand, there are no longer SNAP case workers, only DTA agents, so there is no one specifically responsible for approving SNAP applications. All very strange. So this woman sent my case to her supervisor for approval and said I would receive my EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card in the mail. One of my housemates had to go to a DTA office in Chelsea to get her picture taken for her card to be valid but for some reason my card was marked valid without a photo. I don’t know why. So last week I got one letter with my EBT card and another letter telling me how much my benefits will be; however I haven’t gotten a letter with my pin number, so my card is still useless. I have called the customer service line but as expected, they are experiencing high call volumes so I am waiting for a call back.

I started this process on December 28th and it’s now February 25th and I’m not finished yet. The process is confusing and difficult and it requires so much effort. The people that I have spoken to at the DTA have been relatively polite but my interview was tinged with a tone of distrust and doubt. Each step takes longer than it should and without me pushing the process through I have no doubt that it wouldn’t get finished. The idea that SNAP benefit recipients are lazy and taking advantage of the system isn’t just false, it’s statistically disproven repeatedly and, in my experience, unrealistic. The process is a huge pain. It’s difficult, confusing, and as I’ve seen with my housemates, inconsistent. This is only a reflection of the application process. I haven’t gotten far enough to tell you what it’s actually like to use SNAP. I hope my next post can explain my experience with shopping, but we’ll see when I get a call back.