The U.S. Department of Agriculture will pay 47,760 Georgia households a total of $22 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from the state’s problems providing food stamps.
The state's food stamp system has been plagued with troubles in recent years, causing tens of thousands of Georgians to lose their benefits or be blocked from applying. The settlement announced Monday seeks to pay people retroactively for the food stamps they should have received.
The USDA provides the funding for food stamps, so it will pay for the settlement. The state Division of Family and Children Services manages Georgia's program.
Under the settlement, each eligible household will receive an average of $463 in additional food stamps, according to a DFCS statement.
When these Georgians stopped receiving food stamps, some had to stop paying rent or hold off buying medicine in order to put food on the table, said an attorney with the nonprofit group that filed the federal lawsuit.
"It caused these households serious harm," said Marc Cohan of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. "They are among the most vulnerable people — the elderly, the working poor, persons with disabilities, families with young children."
The class-action lawsuit filed in early 2014 asserted that Georgia was failing to follow federal law, in that many food stamp applications and renewals were not processed in time and were therefore denied.
ON HOLD FOR HOURS
Much of the blame fell upon the agency’s new centralized call-in system, which came fully online in 2013 after an 18-month phase-in. It quickly established itself as a frustrating failure. People could not get through on the phone. Callers found themselves on hold for hours. Thousands of calls went unanswered every month.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution presented numerous reports over the past two years on the failed system, which officials say has been revamped and improved. The food stamp program was so bad that federal officials threatened to pull millions of dollars in administrative funding for Georgia.
Problems extended beyond the phone system, Cohan said. The agency was understaffed and workers were poorly trained. People’s paperwork regularly slipped through the cracks.
Roberta Lewis remembers waiting on hold as long as three hours when she needed an explanation of benefits in 2013. The Lowndes County woman, who has liver disease and a son who is developmentally disabled, would simply place her phone in speaker mode. Sometimes a worker would pick up and just send her back to the beginning of the process.
She doesn’t know whether she qualifies for this retroactive benefit, but she remembers a period when she thought her family was getting less than it should in food stamps.
The important thing, she said, is that the program has improved. These days she gets re-approved with little difficulty, though things can still be a bit dicey.
“You kind of hold your breath every time,” she said.
SOME WILL LOSE OUT
DFCS Director Bobby Cagle was appointed to the post while the food stamp troubles raged in mid-2014. He ordered millions of dollars in worker overtime to bring down a backlog of thousands of cases.
In February of last year, he announced DFCS would scrap much of the call-in system, switching much of the work back to caseworkers in local DFCS offices.
The new system shows improvement, but challenges remain, said David Super, a Georgetown University law professor who has monitored Georgia’s system for years. The backlog of cases has been largely reduced. But the workload is now dispersed in DFCS offices across the state, some of which are understaffed, he said.
Under the settlement, Georgia must provide periodic monitoring reports to the nonprofit group, tracking progress on food stamps.
The settlement hardly recompenses people for every dollar they lost, added Super, who has reviewed the document. Some people who lost out might not be included in it.
People eligible for the settlement benefit should start receiving notices this week, and they will see it show up on their electronic food stamps benefits card on Jan. 19, officials said.