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Feature

Net Loss

State social services falter, just when state residents need them most

Frank Klein
Marylanders seeking help flood the Baltimore County office of the State Department of Social Services on a recent morning.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 11/4/2009

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It's 7:58 a.m. Monday morning at the Baltimore County Department of Social Services office at Drumcastle Center in Towson. The waiting room is quickly filling with people who've come to apply for food stamps, temporary cash assistance, energy assistance, and other public benefits. There's already a line five people deep at the energy-assistance desk, and a group gathers around the ticket machine that doles out numbers for those waiting for service.

Stephanie F. has come here with her mother today. She is 33 years old and unemployed. She lost her job as a pharmacy technician in February and represents a new generation of social-services consumer--the middle-income worker who never imagined themselves applying for welfare.

Shortly after she lost her job, Stephanie says, she had difficulty making her money stretch. She had to pay rent, buy food, and cover bills, and there was simply no way she was going to be able to afford to buy health insurance on her own. She says she comes from a family that has always worked to support itself--her mother worked in medical billing, her father was in the military and now works at the Port of Baltimore--and the very idea of applying for public assistance was humiliating.

She thought about it. She cried over it. Finally, she came to terms with it, and made a trip to Social Services to fill out the paperwork.

"I went in and applied for everything," she says. "But I was only approved for food stamps. I was not disabled, and I don't have children, so I couldn't get cash or medical assistance. Because I am single, I could only get food stamps."

Still, she was grateful for that little bit of help. While it lasted.

Food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a federal/state program that provides up to $200 per month for qualifying individuals and $668 per month for a family of four to purchase food. The benefits are loaded onto a debit card for use at grocery stores and markets.

As with similar social "safety net" programs, such as temporary cash assistance and Medicaid, the processing of food-stamp applications is supposed to be fast. According to the laws regulating all three of these programs, applications should be processed within 30 days from the date they're filed. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen, and a growing number of Marylanders say they are not receiving answers about their applications for weeks, or even months, past that 30-day mark. These delays come at a time when the number of Marylanders who find themselves out of work for the first time in their lives, unable to find jobs that can cover the bills, unable to afford even the most basic staples, is growing as well.

Stephanie says she applied in March, but it took more than two months of frequent visits to the office (two to three times per week, every week, she says) and phone calls to case managers and supervisors before the Department of Social Services finally approved her in May. In the interim, she found herself at food banks and relying on help from her family to feed herself, barely scraping by.

With the exception of certain special-needs cases, individuals who receive food stamps must re-apply every six months to prove they're still eligible. Again, this process is supposed to be fast, but as Stephanie found out, that doesn't mean it will be. She says that as the six-month mark approached, she was worried that she hadn't received notification from the Department of Social Services about what she needed to do.

"I knew [the deadline was] coming up, because I was keeping track," she says. "So I called, and they sent me an application to fill out. I brought it in, but they lost it. I had a receipt, even. But I called and I called, and they never even called me back. It's been two months now, and this issue is not resolved yet."

So once again, she's making multiple trips per week to the Department of Social Services, sitting all morning and well into the afternoon waiting for someone to see her.

Stephanie's mother, who has come along to offer moral support, carries a lunch-bag cooler with supplies to get them through. The two have settled into the plastic-seated chairs lined up in rows in the crowded room.

Signs posted on the door and along the wall alert people that delays should be expected, as the number of applications for assistance has been on the rise recently, due to the depressed economy.

Right now, a digital display says that number 65 is being served. "I got 98," Stephanie sighs. The morning crawls along, and at 8:45, the machine finally jumps to 66.

"I waited one day from 7:30 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon," Stephanie says, "and when I finally got to be seen, I was told I had to go see another person, so sit back down and wait."

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