New Jersey is one of the slowest states in the nation in getting food stamps to needy people.
Its performance is so poor, in fact, that the federal government is directing the state to improve, according to an examination of federal data by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
States are required by U.S. law to get food stamps to people within 30 days, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food-stamp program, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Any state that cannot process more than 90 percent of its SNAP applications in that time must devise a plan that brings its timeliness up to 95 percent, USDA rules stipulate.
The USDA's most recent data show that New Jersey processes applications within 30 days just 73.75 percent of the time.
Only four states, Tennessee, Vermont, Hawaii, and Connecticut, have slower times than New Jersey's, figures indicate.
"There's a lot of concern about low rankings in New Jersey,'' said Joyce Campbell, spokesperson for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton. ``It's been a shame because there are backlogs of people waiting for SNAP benefits.''
A state spokeswoman pointed out that individual counties, not the state, are responsible for processing SNAP applications.
Nevertheless, she added, "New Jersey is working closely with its counties to improve their processing timeliness'' by streamlining procedures and installing updated computer systems.
Within the last five years, New Jersey's county boards of social services have been overwhelmed by people in need - the primary cause of the state's problems with timely processing of applications, said Lisa Pitz, coordinator of advocacy and outreach for the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.
She said the number of people applying for SNAP since 2008 increased 107 percent, largely due to the recession and its aftermath. The latest federal figures show that as of March, there were 873,657 people receiving SNAP benefits in New Jersey, about one in 10 residents.
"There isn't enough staff to process all those applications,'' said Robyn Lockett, SNAP outreach coordinator with the Food Bank of South Jersey.
In one case, Lockett said, a SNAP applicant waited six months for her paperwork to be processed. Another woman simply gave up her benefits one month because she had stood for five hours in line in her county office and decided she could wait no longer.
Waiting can hurt a family that needs food right now, SNAP recipients say.
"Oh, man, it's been so bad,'' said Katira Quiles, 22, a Camden mother of two who has a part-time job for $8 an hour at a food-processing plant near Glassboro. ``They take a long time getting you your food stamps.''
Recently, Quiles' benefit was a week late, causing her to panic because she didn't have enough food for her children.
Quiles added that it's difficult to get caseworkers on the phone and that it's hard for a person with a job to find the time to show up in county offices.
The average monthly SNAP benefit per person in New Jersey is $133.26.
Daniel Boas, director of the Burlington County Board of Social Services, said he understood there were problems, but was working to fix them.
"It's not any one issue, but a cumulative perfect storm of issues,'' he said, listing them:
Many in an aging workforce of caseworkers are resigning. The recession wreaked havoc throughout the state. County revenue dipped when properties were devalued because of the recession. Even Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy played a part, since many people were entitled to disaster SNAP after those events, putting greater strain on county offices.
"Everything just came together,'' Boas said, "and then the service timeliness for SNAP went down.''
The state and its 21 counties are being "very proactive about this,'' he said. Caseworkers are being hired, and the computer system is being overhauled.
The state is also limiting the number of times people must recertify for benefits. In the past, a person had to reapply every six months; the state is now extending that to once a year, Boas said.
New Jersey is also changing the way applicants interact with county staff, state officials said. Before, people had a hard time filing paperwork if their assigned caseworker was not available.
Now, any caseworker can process any application, which is clearing up backlogs, said Kathleen Lockbaum, director of the Salem County Board of Social Services and president of an association of county welfare directors.
The state's efforts are helping, said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP expert with the Food Research and Action Center, a national antihunger advocacy group.
"New Jersey is not standing pat,'' Vollinger said. But ``there are still enormous challenges. They need to be working on it.''