S.C. food programs can be nightmare

Zacharia Huggins, 9, caught his own shrimp from a dock near his Phillips Community home. He took the shrimp home, where it was cooked for dinner by his mother Nikita Huggins. Huggins, who has an MBA but has been out of work since September, relies on state assistance and food donations to feed her family.

Nikita Huggins gets $515 a month in food assistance.

With it she feeds herself and her three children, Yasha, 17; Daqwan, 16; and Zacharia, 9. She also goes to the food pantry at East Cooper Community Outreach once a month for canned and dry foods.

She doesn't go out to eat, not even to fast-food restaurants. She cooks at her Mount Pleasant home each day, and has learned to be frugal.

Her unemployment benefits of $278 a week, which kicked in after Huggins lost two well-paying jobs, run out in September. She uses that money to pay the electric and Internet bills first so she can keep looking for work.

Now, she is growing increasingly frustrated, trying to hide her anxiety from her children.

"I really don't think they should go through this after I've worked so hard not to be in this situation," she said.

Many families in South Carolina are going through this. The shelves at local food pantries are bare, agencies report. Demand for assistance is up. Children home from school during the summer -- children who qualify with school districts for free or reduced-cost lunches -- need to be fed during the day.

As families struggle to make ends meet in a bad economy, poverty in an already high-poverty state, along with food insecurity, is on the rise. The trend makes people like Huggins worry, and it places a large burden on charities and agencies that were meant only to provide a safety net in case of emergency.

Today, these organizations are becoming the primary resource for people in need. And they are stretched so thin that some are showing signs of a breakdown in the services they are expected to provide.

DSS demand

The Department of Social Services administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps). Required by federal law to provide food benefits to qualified applicants within 30 days, the turnaround routinely takes longer -- sometimes up to 90 days, according to officials at East Cooper Community Outreach.

And the process is riddled with problems that confuse and distress applicants, confound third-party administrators and frustrate others who help clients file the paperwork.

Case managers at DSS are overwhelmed with work, according to a March report from the Appleseed Legal Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income South Carolinians.

Each case worker is responsible for 880 applications, and nearly half of the full-time nutrition program positions on the books are left vacant because of budget cuts. By comparison, the caseload in Mississippi is about 370 to 1.

Since 2007, enrollment in the nutrition program has more than doubled, reaching its highest level in a decade. More than 100,000 families in the state receive food assistance, but 37 percent of families who need help putting food on the table aren't getting it, according to the report.

Linda Martin, deputy director for economic programs at DSS, said the agency is working to improve customer service.

Paper files are being converted into digital files so staff can rely on a more efficient computer-based system, she said. Open cases now are available online and accessible to all staff. So the 880-to-1 client-staff ratio is misleading, Martin said.

In fact, caseloads are shared throughout a county and eventually will be shared among state regions. Action can be taken even when a particular caseworker is unavailable, she said.

"Nobody has a caseload," Martin said. "The work is round- robin among all the workers in the county so the work is equalized and the work is done much more efficiently."

A new call center and new online application process have been introduced. And the agency is planning to install computer kiosks at food banks, churches, grocery stores, DSS offices, libraries and other public places where clients can apply for benefits.

Money lost

Economic recovery in South Carolina has been slow, and spending on programs that benefit children has not recovered after dramatic budget cuts. The state budget was cut by about $2 billion, from $7 billion in 2007 to $5 billion in 2010. Spending for the fiscal year that started July 1 is $6 billion.

Sue Berkowitz, director of Appleseed, said lawmakers have their priorities mixed up. They chose to give businesses a $146 million break on unemployment taxes but did not replace $2 million in benefits for poor families, she said.

Monthly stipends for the state's welfare-to-work program were cut this year by 20 percent, from $270 for a family of three to $216, the fourth lowest in the nation as of March. The problem is exacerbated because federal matching dollars are lost due to state cuts. The federal government funds food benefits, but the state must cover half the cost of running the program.

About $800 million in federal funds earmarked for social services in South Carolina went unclaimed in 2009, according to The Benefit Bank, a program of the nonprofit S.C. Office of Rural Health.

The money was meant for state residents who qualified for an earned income tax credit, food assistance, Medicaid and other benefits but did not apply for various reasons, said Lanice Ravenel, The Benefit Bank's data and grants manager.

"When funds aren't claimed, potentially we lose out on those funds," she said. "They go to other states."

Bureaucracy

Kathryn Harrison, mission and community activities manager at Roper St. Francis Healthcare and an East Cooper Community Outreach volunteer, assists nutrition program applicants and corresponds regularly with staff at the Department of Social Services.

Harrison said it's very difficult to get through to DSS staff who call clients about their applications. Clients often cannot answer phone calls during regular weekday hours because their work doesn't permit it, they don't have a cell phone or they avoid calls from numbers they don't recognize, she said.

And phone lines at the agency are often busy, or voice mail boxes are full. Messages cannot be left when calling its 800 number.

Clients, who are required to have an interview before food assistance is approved, routinely receive denial notices before the interview is scheduled, Harrison said. DSS said its obligation to process claims within 30 days forces the agency to deny applications if clients aren't reached in that time frame.

Sandra Brandl, a case manager at East Cooper Community Outreach who typically submits several nutrition program applications to DSS at the end of each week, said the paperwork often sits in someone's basket for weeks before it is processed.

Recently, the agency enabled people to apply online, but that requires access to a computer with an Internet connection, and a degree of computer literacy, Brandl said.

The two women estimated that 75 percent of qualified applicants do not get food assistance within 30 days, or at all, a claim DSS contests. In June, the agency reported that 74 percent of applications from Charleston County were processed within 30 days.

False security

Cathy Easley, vice president of safety net services at Trident United Way, blamed DSS' woes on budget cuts.

"They've lost so much funding they don't have enough staff to do all this," she said. But failings at the department have a ripple effect. "People get frustrated and they just give up, and then what they do is go to the food pantries for food."

Local food pantries become familiar places that provide clients with a "safe haven," Easley said, but it's a false sense of security. The pantries cannot provide fresh fruits and vegetables or hot meals, and they can easily run out of donated supplies.

East Cooper Community Outreach has seen a rise in demand. In May 2010, it submitted 11 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications; in May this year, 19 applications were processed, according to Executive Director Jack Little.

A total of 64 clients applied for benefits last year. Already this year, 82 applications have been filled out.

The Lowcountry Food Bank, which serves 10 coastal counties and participates in the annual Hunger in America study, reports that 81 percent of its clients qualify for food assistance, but only 34 percent are participating in the program.

The reasons people don't participate include misunderstandings about qualifications and program requirements, suggesting that many more would sign up if they knew they were eligible, and concerns about perceived inconvenience and bureaucratic complications, according to the 2010 report.

The number of people living in South Carolina's 10 coastal counties who are enrolled in the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has grown by nearly 50 percent in the past three years, according to DSS data assembled by the food bank.

Ripple effect

The state's share of the DSS budget dropped from a high of $134.2 million in 2008-09 to $118.7 million in 2010-11, a 12 percent decrease. Lawmakers slightly bolstered funding, to $119.2 million, for the current fiscal year.

Meanwhile, 450,000 more individuals are receiving DSS services since the Great Recession began in December 2007.

The need extends far beyond food insecurity. Budget cutbacks in recent years have caused children with physical and mental disabilities to lose access to services. Poor children are challenged by learning gaps worsened because of cutbacks to -- or elimination of -- school-readiness programs.

When investments in children are reduced, the whole state suffers, Berkowitz said. Low-income parents can't afford childcare or transportation, which inhibits them from finding jobs, which limits income and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

"I don't see children's lives improving at all," she said.

Not for lack of trying

Huggins said she applied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as soon as she lost her job in early September 2010, but did not receive money until late December -- nearly four months later.

Every morning she is on the computer searching for jobs; most afternoons she is following up on queries and applications she has filed, often in person.

She has closed out her 401(k) account, despite a loss of 40 percent of the funds, the tax penalty for early withdrawal, and she has stopped making payments on $80,000 in student loans, she said.

She is registered with various temp agencies, but many potential employers -- fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, banks, retailers -- consider her "overqualified," Huggins said.

Huggins, who was the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college (Claflin University, where she earned a business degree), once was head of student activities at Denmark Technical College, and she has held other jobs that paid well enough, she said.

She used to have her own car. She used to have a career. She used to take her kids on vacations.

She has tried to teach her children that getting an education and working hard is the key to success, she said, but she worries that that message is undermined by her new reality.

"It's not going to be like this forever," she said with tears in her eyes. "I refuse to be stuck here. If it weren't for God, it could have been worse."

DSS efforts

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

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.

Poverty index by school district

District 2010 2009 2008

Berkeley 69.86% 68.11 66.93

Charleston 63.48% 63.15 63.00

Colleton 89.28% 87.86 86.74

Dorchester 2 56.10% 53.07 50.58

Dorchester 4 87.89% 87.40 86.83

Best: York 4 25.60% 23.73 23.25

Worst: Marion 98.32% 97.47 97.80

S.C. Department of Education

The money debate

Rep. Jenny Anderson Horne, R-Summerville, said children are the top priority, but the state must live within its means. Horne noted that as the economy started its slow tick upward, legislators put more money back into public schools and agencies that take care of disabled children and those with special needs.

“We’re doing our best during tough budget years to take care of our neediest citizens,” she said.

Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, said the state lost its focus on investing in the future generation a long time ago.

“We tend to be a sound-bite Legislature: cut taxes, less government growth,” he said. “A good society takes care of two elements: our children and our elderly. I don’t think we’ve focused enough in investing in our children. That’s our future. That’s our educated workforce.”

Aid numbers

Supplemental Nutrition

Assistance Program enrollment:

2006 221,922 families

(not individuals)

2007 239,674

2008 281,524

2009 340,017

2010 379,774

Currently 388,836

S.C. Department of Social Services