VERMONT — Like thousands of Vermonters, Kristen Andrews turned to the food assistance program 3SquaresVT when she had exhausted all other options. In the fall of 2011 her income dropped, and the local educator and mother of four filed an application for help from the federally funded program formerly called Food Stamps.
But Andrews, a Lincoln resident, never expected the application would lead to a mistake that doubled her family’s health insurance premium. And she couldn’t have foreseen the long and arduous process of straightening it out.
State and local officials who deal with the food assistance program recognize that the difficulty Andrews had reaching a caseworker is not uncommon for applicants trying to reach the overextended Vermont Department of Children and Families (DCF), which administers 3SquaresVT. They say a dramatic uptick in the number of people getting food assistance occurred at the same time the state was cutting the number of workers dispensing services.
What is 3SquaresVT?
VERMONT — 3SquaresVT is a federally funded food assistance program for low-income Vermonters, which provides major economic stimulus to the state. The program is the Vermont branch of the USDA-administered Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), formerly known as the U.S. Food Stamp Program.
In 2009, 3SquaresVT switched to its current name, representing the three square meals a day that the programs seeks to provide to all Vermonters in need. The program is known as a federal entitlement program, which means that if you apply and you’re eligible, you’re guaranteed assistance. 3SquaresVT funds can be used to buy any quality of food from a range of locations, including local food cooperatives, large supermarkets and many farmers’ markets.
According to the USDA, SNAP assisted roughly 44.7 million people nationwide last year, at an average rate of $134 per person. In March of this year, the 3SquaresVT program assisted 96,080 Vermonters.
Reneé Richardson, who was the director of 3SquaresVT from 2001 until she left for a job in private industry this month, said it not only helps recipients directly, but she also touted the broad economic benefits of the program. According to data from the Vermont Department of Children and Families, the program brought $136,940,576 into Vermont in 2011 — four times more than the $31,741,036 the program brought into the state in 2001 (see graph).
“This program helps support the economy of the state of Vermont,” said Richardson. “It is huge. If this program didn’t exist, there would be a lot of businesses in the state of Vermont that didn’t exist.”
But the USDA estimates that the economic benefits of the program are much larger than that initial $136,940,576 infusion. The agency estimates that every dollar dealt in SNAP benefits can generate up to $1.80 in economic activity by feeding money into local stores, which provide jobs and rely on warehouses, delivery companies, farmers and other food producers.
Ultimately, SNAP receives its funding from an allocation in the federal Farm Bill.
Despite the number of people that it helps, the program’s future is uncertain, said Richardson.
“There are a lot of cuts the United States House would like to make to this program,” she said. “It’s a federally regulated program, so there’s really not much states can do when it comes to (funding and) changing the rules of this program.”
In the last decade, the number of Vermonters receiving federal aid through the 3SquaresVT program has exploded, with the statewide caseload 237 percent of what it was 10 years ago and the Addison County caseload 275 percent of the 2002 level. Meanwhile, federal and state funding for the Economic Services Division of DCF — which, in addition to 3SquaresVT, administers low-income health insurance programs and a range of other need-based assistance programs — was cut back, resulting in a reduced DCF workforce.
Karl Felkl, regional manager for the ESD offices in Addison and Rutland counties, acknowledges problems with the distribution of 3SquaresVT benefits, and said he is working to improve the way the division handles cases. He explained the situation with which he was confronted in early fall of 2011.
“The caseloads were out of control, and we were running into the problem of no matter how fast we worked we couldn’t keep up,” he said. “We had to do something. We were drowning.”
With more demand than workers could handle, the division’s leadership knew that something needed to change.
STRETCHED TOO THIN
When Felkl began working at DCF in 1994, a worker’s average caseload was about 300 families. Since then, the average caseload per worker has swelled to 700.
The 3SquaresVT program has contributed thousands of those new cases.
From March 2002 to March of this year, the number of individual Vermonters receiving 3SquaresVT benefits grew from 40,507 to 96,080. In Addison County that number grew from 1,654 recipients in March 2002 to 4,547 in March 2012.
The bulk of new recipients joined the program between 2008 and 2011 (see graph) for two main reasons:
1. DCF raised the maximum income level for the program from 130 percent of the poverty level to 185 percent. By today’s standards, for a family of four, that’s an increase from $2,422 a month to $3,466.
2. The recession barreled into Vermont in 2009, when unemployment rates hit their peak at 7.2 percent.
Reneé Richardson, who was the director of 3SquaresVT from 2001 until early this month when she left for the private sector, said these two factors combined to create a level of demand for which the division hadn’t prepared.
“You have to understand that the expansion of eligibility happened at the same time that we went into a deep recession,” she said. “The anticipation wasn’t that we were going into a recession. So when we were gearing up for the expansion, we were getting ready for additional people to come in. But we had no idea that so many people would suddenly lose their jobs or be without jobs for so long.”
The recession, however, took its toll on more than just individuals; it also affected the state agency tasked with helping those in need.
“The recession didn’t just hit our population in general, it hit the state (government) of Vermont as well,” said Richardson. “Our budget was strapped and we had to be conscious of staffing. Because we suddenly had so many people participating, caseloads went up. And when caseloads go up, you have a little less time to manage the caseloads if you don’t have a subsequent increase in staff.”
The number of state workers handling 3SquaresVT cases didn’t increase — it decreased.
Richard Giddings, who runs the Economic Services Division as deputy commissioner of DCF, said the division lost more than 100 employees after early retirement incentives were offered to seasoned workers in 2009; the incentives were aimed at reducing department costs.
But another obstacle arose, said Giddings. Not only was the division short-staffed, it also lost experience.
“The problem with many of our programs is that when somebody retires and you hire somebody new, yes you’re paying them less money, but it takes a couple years to become fully trained,” he said. “So you lose that expertise and knowledge and the ability to manage a full caseload.”
WAITING FOR HELP
All programs offered by the Economic Services Division are tied together. By applying to one program, your financial information is applied to all programs you’re enrolled in, which explains why Kristen Andrews’ subsidized health insurance premium doubled when a caseworker made a mistake processing her 3SquaresVT application.
But that was the tip of the iceberg for the cash-strapped mother of four. When she attempted to call the division in early fall, she couldn’t get through to a caseworker. When she finally did get through, the person on the other line couldn’t help her, and she said her case was put on hold for weeks.
“Meanwhile, I’m paying a double premium,” she said. “I was like, ‘You guys, my income went down and my premiums doubled!’”
After what Andrews said was about 10 weeks, a caseworker identified the error, her premiums went down and she was issued $400 a month for food assistance — help that she says she’s very grateful to get.
Although DCF’s central office workers were scrambling to relocate after their Waterbury quarters were inundated by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in August, lengthy wait times and issues connecting applicants with caseworkers are problems that have long plagued the 3SquaresVT program, said Donna Rose, food shelf coordinator and 3SquaresVT advocate at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity in Middlebury.
“Quite frankly it’s almost impossible to get through,” she said about calling caseworkers at the Economic Services Division. “It’s at the point where we say to clients we’d like to call for you, but unless you have a long time to sit here, we won’t be able to get through.”
A call to the division’s main line for general questions the other week went unanswered by a customer service agent for more than an hour. No one ever answered, but there was an option to leave a message.
Rose said long wait times have caused problems for some 3SquaresVT applicants because once their application is reviewed, the applicant only has five days to interview with a caseworker. Rose said in some cases applicants haven’t been able to get through to a caseworker for their interview. In the end, Rose and her office have always worked with DCF to straighten out such issues, but the program has been riddled with such kinks, she said.
“It’s been a problematic program for a bit now,” she said. “I understand the frustrations and there are times that you just can’t take care of everything, and for the state, I feel that’s part of the problem.”
Karl Felkl acknowledged that taking care of everything has been a problem for his staff and other workers around the state.
A POSSIBLE SOLUTION
At Felkl’s Middlebury office off of Route 7 in the South Village Green complex, Felkl spoke candidly about mistakes that have arisen, long wait times and the department’s plan to improve the situation.
He explained that caseworkers must administer various programs very differently, following a range of contrasting eligibility requirements and federal standards. He also said that factors like having three or four jobs, such as Andrews does, can increase the potential for application processing errors because there are more factors taken into consideration and thus more federally mandated paperwork.
The largest obstacle his offices in Rutland and Addison counties have had to contend with is responding to skyrocketing demand for programs with fewer workers. But Felkl is working on a solution to this problem.
Rutland and Addison county offices for the Economic Services Division are the first district offices to implement a new way of processing applications; Rutland began this process in December and Middlebury in mid-May. Rather than a single caseworker dealing with all programs and every step of a program, workers will now focus their energies by specializing on a particular task. And there will always be workers at the greeting window whose job it is to help people begin their applications or connect with the right specialist.
Phone calls pass through a central switchboard and the division often experiences high call volumes. Therefore, the Middlebury and Rutland offices are encouraging applicants of their programs to come directly to one of the two district offices. The goal is to have applicants come to the office with an application, which can also be filed online, and leave that day with 3SquaresVT benefits.
“I just want people to know that they can come in here and they will be seen, even if they’re a resident of another county,” said Felkl. “And I don’t see any reason why people wouldn’t be seen within 10 minutes.”
After more than a decade of running 3SquaresVT, Richardson is proud to see the program helping such a high number of people in need. But she recognizes that there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
“I think our ability to process cases more timely and more accurately would be a good thing to improve upon,” she said.
For more information on 3SquaresVT or to apply online, head to dcf.vermont.gov/esd/3SquaresVT. Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From March 2002 to March of this year, the number of individual Vermonters receiving 3SquaresVT benefits grew from 40,507 to 96,080.
The number of Addison County residents receiving 3SquaresVT benefits grew from1,654 recipients in March 2002 to 4,547 in March 2012.
According to data from DCF, the 3SquaresVT program brought $136,940,576 into the state in 2011 — fout times more than the $31,741,036 the program brought into the state in 2001.