The Department of Social Services has 30 days to process an application for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Caseworkers have 10 days to place three calls to clients requesting a phone interview, according to Linda Martin, deputy director for economic programs.

If the worker can't reach the individual, a letter is sent out informing the applicant that he must call back to finish the process. If the applicant does not reach a caseworker within the 30-day period, the application is denied. Appeals can be made by phone or in writing within 30 days of a denial.

Critics complain that it is difficult to get through to DSS by phone and impossible to leave a message. They also say that denials come before any attempt is made by the agency to schedule an interview, which causes confusion and requires time-consuming follow-up.

Martin said that nearly three-quarters of Charleston County applications processed in June took 30 days or less.

To reach DSS by phone, call 803-898-7601 or 800-768-5700.

The Benefit Bank is a program of the nonprofit South Carolina Office of Rural Health, based in Columbia. It opened 18 months ago and now has more than 300 registration sites throughout the state -- at churches, charities, businesses, food banks -- where people can go to apply for benefits.

The program relies on more than 1,000 volunteer counselors who guide clients through the benefits application process. The Benefit Bank functions as a one-stop shop where people can provide information that populates multiple applications in one visit and submits required paperwork to state agencies.

For more information, call 800-726-8774.