You know that feeling of dread and panic you get when you have to go to the DMV to renew your driver’s license? It’s just a fraction of what you might feel if you had to apply for food assistance.
It takes a lot of time and patience to apply for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Federal, state and local policies can make the process either more efficient or more frustrating. Here are three areas where SNAP applicants run into problems and some changes you can advocate for to make the process easier.
1. Online Access
Being able to apply online helps you navigate the lengthy application by directing you to the specific benefits you qualify for. It saves you time and money too, as long as you have access to a computer or internet. But some applicants aren’t familiar with computers or the internet. Others may live on the wrong side of the digital divide and lack high speed internet access, especially in rural areas.
Applicants must provide electronic versions of verification documents like proof of residency and income or assets. If you don’t have access to a scanner, you can take a picture of the document, email it to yourself, convert it to a PDF, then upload the file. To do this you need access to a smartphone or computer and the internet, but you also need to know how to perform each step. If any required documents are missing from your application, it will be denied.
If you’re in Kansas, get online: You can submit a SNAP application online instead of delivering, mailing or faxing a paper form. The application for food assistance also includes financial, medical and child care benefits to streamline the process.
If you’re in Missouri, get a paper form: A few years ago Missouri took the SNAP application offline to create a similar combined application. It should be back online in Jackson County soon. In the meantime paper applications are available.
Make it better:
- Increase the resource limit, currently set at $2,250 per household, or eliminate certain countable assets, such as real estate or a vehicle, to reduce the number of verification documents.
- Expand high speed internet access to allow more applicants to apply online. Expanding high speed internet will take collaboration between the public and private sectors. A division of the Federal Communications Commission works to make sure rural and low-income residents, schools and libraries have affordable access to high speed internet. Connect America Fund offer incentives for internet providers servicing rural areas and Lifeline provides financial support for low-income internet consumers.
- Include high speed internet in low-income housing. In 2016 Google Fiber started providing free high speed internet to low-income housing in select cities, including 100 homes in KC, as part of the ConnectHome project.
- Promote digital literacy programs. Along with free high speed internet, Google Fiber offers free digital literacy classes to teach people how to use a computer and the internet.
2. Phone Access
You’ll have to take part in an eligibility interview to verify the information you submitted. If you don’t complete your interview within a certain time period, your application will be denied. Phone interviews are meant to be more convenient than going to a center, but they can be lengthy. Applicants run into problems if they have limited or prepaid minutes or if they live in transitional housing with only a shared land line.
If you’re in Kansas, make a call: You’ll receive notification by mail with the date and time of your scheduled interview and a phone number to call. If the date has already passed when you receive notification, you can call to reschedule.
If you’re in Missouri, wait on hold: You’ll receive notification by mail, but interviews in Missouri are not scheduled. The call center will try to contact you by phone too. If you miss the call, you can phone the call center to request an interview. You might wait on hold for up to 2 hours, depending on call volume. Then the interview itself takes about an hour.
Make it Better:
- Reduce call center hold times or use a phone system that gives the applicant an option to receive a call back, rather than waiting on hold.
- Allow applicants to schedule interviews based on their schedule to make the interview process easier.
3. Transportation Access
If you don’t have online access,you can visit a local office, a Family Support Division resource center in Missouri or a Department of Family and Children service center in Kansas. You can pick up an application, drop off verification documents and in some states, do an eligibility interview. The centers are typically open during regular business hours on weekdays. For applicants who are working, it can be challenging to make it to a center during these times.
In urban areas, applicants have more office locations to choose from and can take transit if they don’t own a vehicle. But in rural areas or for people who are homebound, transportation can be a significant barrier.
If you’re in Kansas, fewer service centers: Kansas has 38 service centers, most in the eastern half of the state.
If you’re in Missouri, more resource centers: Missouri has 114 resource centers, one in every country.
Make it Better:
- Support organizations like Harvesters that complete applications over the phone for people in Kansas and Missouri who can’t get to a center.
- Advocate for policies that improve the application process. For example, Missouri accepts voice signatures for applications completed over the phone, and Kansas recently passed Substitute for Senate Bill 95 accepting voice signatures. This policy reduces wait times for applicants.
Any change that improves online, phone or transportation access for applicants makes the SNAP application process that much easier, ensuring timely food assistance to those experiencing food insecurity.