Fixes aim to salvage Georgia food stamp program

This is a story of redemption, but it starts with the dumpster fire that has been Georgia’s food stamp program.

For the past several years, the program, whose 1.6 million recipients are the poor, the elderly and disabled, was broken. Amid the stress of state budget cuts and the rapid increase in new applications during the Great Recession, state administrators tried an ill-advised “One Georgia” strategy of pushing food stamp applications either online or through a centralized call system — with disastrous results.

Callers were left on hold six hours or longer. At their worst, operators answered just one in three calls. The rest either were hangups or were dropped by a convulsing system never designed to handle the flood of calls.

The problem was so severe that two years ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the program, threatened to withhold $76 million in administrative money if the state did not improve performance. Earlier this year, the USDA settled a class action lawsuit with an agreement to pay $22 million in back food stamps to 47,760 Georgia households, an acknowledgement of how poorly the state had managed one of the most basic of our social welfare programs.

Facing threats from Washington and blistering criticism at home, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Bobby Cagle in June 2014 to head the Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS), which administers the food stamp program but also faced serious problems in how it handled child abuse cases. Cagle had been serving as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning but worked for DFCS for years before that.

It didn’t take long for Cagle to diagnose the stress on the program. The case workload during the recession increased 70 percent and staff had decreased by 22 percent.

The call center approach was an effort to do more with less, a reasonable way to handle a crisis — unless you were dealing with extremely complex and local problems such as feeding a family in crisis 100 miles from Atlanta.

Operators taking new applications did not have the on-the-ground knowledge of resources in far-flung counties and cases were swapped from one state agent to another, frustrating applicants and adding to a backlog that reached 65,000 cases at one point.

A third of all new applications took longer than a month to process and about one in every dozen applications had an error in it.

“That’s horrible,” Cagle said. “You’ve got hungry people out there.”

Cagle said the old model did not hold state workers accountable. If a case was not completed by the end of a work day, it went back into a common queue for someone else to pick up tomorrow.

“We had one case that we looked at that had 21 different people that touched it and still didn’t get it right,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult to run an operation like that and not have somebody held accountable. That’s a recipe for us having all the negative things that we had there.”

There were technological problems as well.

Workload that had been in spread through 159 county offices was funneled into a telephone system not designed to handle the 627,000 calls a month that came in. Applications were processed through software built on a platform almost as old as some of the employees.

Three months after he was hired, Cagle ordered the system scrapped and replaced with the old way of doing things — caseworkers in county offices handling new applications in person. DFCS agents are now expected to work a food stamps application from start to finish and the reorganization has returned on-site managers to the county offices to ensure there is accountability, Cagle said.

So far the reforms seem to be working.

Call volume has dropped by 74 percent in less than a year. Jon Anderson, deputy director of the program, said applications are processed quicker, meaning fewer people are calling the toll-free number to get status updates.

Those that do call in are more likely to talk to a person. Anderson said 72 percent of calls are answered, compared to just 33 percent a year ago. And in February no caller waited more than an hour on the line to speak to someone.

That may sound like faint praise. Who wants to spend even 5 minutes on hold, much less 55? But given the agency’s poor performance in recent years, there is reason to celebrate.

The drop in calls and hold times saves taxpayer money. The agency was paying a per-minute charge for calls into the call centers, including those calls that were on hold for six hours.

The program isn’t fixed yet. Cagle said the loss of long-time employees who quit out of frustration over the ineffective call center strategy hurt, and rebuilding that workforce takes time.

“I spent a lot of time on the phone with staff who were so dissatisfied — 10 and 20-year people — who said they were looking for something else (saying) ‘I came into this to help people and now all I do is answer telephones,’” Cagle said.

The agency actually has fewer case workers (2,109) compared to a year ago (2,338). Budgetary restrictions meant the agency could not hire replacements, but things are starting to loosen up now, Anderson said.

The fiscal 2017 state budget includes 180 new case workers and the agency has permission to fill currently vacant positions. Many of those new positions will go into the food stamps program.

Georgia’s food stamps program costs $2.3 billion in federal aid. That’s a lot of money, but it’s spread thin. The average monthly benefit is about $126 per person. Almost half of those recipients are children. The elderly and disabled are the other big categories.

This is a program the state has to get right.

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As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.

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