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Measure Aims to Speed Up Food Stamp Applications, Ease Burden on Recipients

Chief sponsor argues that bill would prevent residents from having to choose between paying mortgage and putting food on the table

Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak
State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak

New Jersey has a dismal record of getting food stamps to people who need them in a timely manner, and state Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak has put forward a plan to fix this for the state’s neediest residents.

“People shouldn’t have to make a choice between mortgage payments, their utility bills, and eating,” said Lesniak (D-Union).

Lesniak wants to expedite the processing of food stamp applications and has introduced two bills he thinks will force counties to do just that.

One bill, S-2662/A-3976, would require that those who have less income and cash than their monthly rent or mortgage plus utilities receive benefits within seven days of applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The other bill, S-2661/A-3963, requires that applicants receive a receipt so they are able to prove when they applied.

New Jersey has the third-worst rate of processing applications, behind only Connecticut and Nebraska, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. New Jersey relies on county welfare offices and boards of social services to process SNAP applications and bought a computer system to speed the process. But the state ended up cancelling the contract since it was taking too long to implement, leaving its future uncertain.

The number of New Jersey SNAP recipients doubled from 429,404 in 2008 to 876,323 in April 2014. Of these recipients 410,437 were children.The average monthly SNAP benefit per person was $142.

Anti-hunger activists have called on the state to increase its SNAP processing speed, noting that New Jersey could lose a share of the $140 million it receives from the federal government to process applications if it doesn’t handle them quickly.

Both measures are advancing, with the bill expediting applications approved by the Assembly in December by a 53-8 vote, while the Assembly passed the bill requiring receipts 76-0.

However, an earlier bill that would have helped families that receive both SNAP and home-energy assistance appears dead after Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it. An effort to override the veto fell short yesterday, with only 43 Assembly members voting for it, 11 votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

That bill, A-2956, would have paid families that qualify for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) at least $21 per year, an amount required under a program for those families to also qualify for food stamps.

Christie said in his veto that new federal rules prevented the state from continuing to participate in the “Heat and Eat” program without verifying each family’s income. Supporters of the program rejected Christie’s position, pointing out that other states -- including New York and Pennsylvania -- have received federal approval to continue to participate in the program without verifying each family’s income. They said residents stand to lose $170 million in SNAP benefits as a result of the veto.

The bill requiring receipts for SNAP applications was opposed by the New Jersey Association of Counties on behalf of county welfare office directors, who assert that taking the time to produce receipts would actually slow down application-processing times. They said an existing state form can serve as a receipt.

The state’s food stamp problems go beyond the slow processing time targeted by the bills. New Jersey Policy Perspective senior policy analyst Raymond J. Castro noted in a paper last year that New Jersey also has the fifth-lowest participation rate of residents eligible for SNAP.

“Despite this embarrassing and longstanding record, New Jersey policymakers have not included any funds in the budget for outreach for at least six years -- even though the federal government would provide a dollar-for-dollar match to state and county spending and any outreach that resulted in new SNAP beneficiaries would bring additional federal dollars to the state,” Castro wrote in the paper.

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