Institute Forum

Bringing “Food Stamps” into the 21st Century July 15, 2009

Bringing “Food Stamps" into the 21st Century

If there was any question about why government food-assistance programs needed modernizing to improve access and increase efficiency, Phu Cao of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance said the answer was in the numbers.

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In fiscal year 2002, Massachusetts had 220 employees to handle a combined caseload of 115,000 food-stamp recipients. Today, staffing is down 30 percent, Cao said, while the caseload has increased to 640,000.

Cao was one of four participants to discuss attempts to automate and otherwise modernize many aspects of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which until last year was called the food-stamp program. He spoke during a July 15 panel discussion that was part of the 49th National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics conference in Albany, N.Y., co-hosted by the Rockefeller Institute of Government and the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). The discussion, “State Efforts to Modernize Delivery and Access to SNAP Benefits,” also included Carol Olander of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who provided a national perspective, and Gretchen Rowe of the Urban Institute, who presented composite data collected from states' efforts. Cao and Russell Sykes of New York's OTDA discussed their states' respective experiences with modernization.

Most states are engaged in multiple efforts to modernize their programs, from improving application processes to implementing more technology to aid efficiency, Rowe said. One-third of all states have all of the following: electronic applications, paperless systems and call centers.

States engaged in the largest number of efforts to modernize their SNAP programs are based in the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest; are less rural; and have larger numbers of food-stamp recipients, Rowe said.

Most states reported positive experiences from modernization, such as increased overall participation, and increased participation among particular groups like working families, the elderly and the disabled, as well as staff satisfaction and administrative cost-savings.

States were challenged by resources and financial issues, including staff, costs and competing priorities, she said.

In New York, modernization has included the addition of a Web-based application process and a reduction in eligibility tests. Sykes said improvements to the program have led to an all-time high participation in the SNAP program, with over 1.24 million households, representing more than 2.3 million people, enrolled. The state estimates that to represent 70 percent of people eligible to participate, he said. Many low-income New Yorkers also get money for food from other programs, he added, including those that are also federally funded.

The most successful forms of SNAP modernization in Massachusetts were neither fancy nor high-tech, Cao said. The state increased access to the program through such methods as shortening its application from 16 pages to four – and even shorter, to two pages, for elderly applicants; extending the period in which people remained certified to receive stamps, so that employees weren’t burdened with frequent re-certifications; and providing standard deductions for medical and heating expenses rather than requiring receipts or other detailed proof of expenses.

Cao recommended that other SNAP administrators choose realistic modernization projects and find the courage to move them forward.

“If you plan it, but you don’t implement it, it means nothing,” Cao said. “A realistic project can be the best project.”

Olander reminded listeners to consider many components about their SNAP programs, and not strictly participation.

“You can improve access but not necessarily the quality of the program,” she said.



The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.