Roadblocks to help for the sake of fairness

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This spring I took a new job as a social worker in a food-shelf program. I spend a lot of my time helping people access income supports like SNAP (food support), so the past few months have been a crash course in navigating human-services systems that I haven’t personally needed to this point in my life.

My clients are largely seniors and people with disabilities, so some of them find it challenging to handle the complex SNAP application process on their own. Some haven’t applied for benefits simply because they find handwriting difficult, or don’t believe they’re eligible, or don’t want to go through the hassle. We can overcome barriers like that. When we work together, completing a SNAP application and assembling their identity and income verifications takes less than thirty minutes.

Applying is the easy part. Completing enrollment is often much more difficult. Applications get lost. Clients don’t receive the status updates they’re supposed to. One county worker will tell my client his application has been approved, and the next one tells him his application can’t be approved because it’s missing several pages (it wasn’t; the worker just wasn’t familiar with the new shorter form). Some clients are asked to submit an exhaustive list of documents that aren’t necessary to their case, while others breeze through with much less paperwork. Clients are sometimes given blatantly incorrect information that I know to question only because it’s my job to understand SNAP inside and out. This is the daily reality my clients and I encounter together.

While some want to cast blame on the county workers who make these benefits determinations, that’s unfair. They have a tough job working with an incredibly diverse range of clients, income situations, and support programs. They handle massive amounts of phone calls, appointments, and paperwork. They often encounter applicants who are stressed and confused, and they get the difficult job of telling some of these people that their low incomes are too high to qualify for assistance. That’s no easy day at the office.

I believe the blame lies with policymakers who invest a lot of time in ensuring programs are “fair” (with varying definitions) but considerably less time in ensuring that they’re accessible. I want people in need to be able to get help, and it would be nice if they could succeed in the process without professional intervention. The Department of Human Services has made some very laudable progress in efforts such as shortening applications, but it’s a long slog. In the meantime, the next time you find yourself thinking that people receiving public assistance are lazy or are taking the easy way out…think again. If you don’t believe me, come join me for a day of work and we’ll see if you change your mind.