Feds warn Michigan to improve speed, accuracy of food assistance program

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan is among 48 states to receive stern warnings from the federal Department of Agriculture over slow and inaccurate administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP – which provides funds for groceries to low-income Americans.

The USDA tracks how timely each state’s processing of cases is and how many errors are made. Michigan falls short of the federally acceptable standard in both, according to the department.


SNAP benefits are federally funded. Administration of benefits and associated costs are handled at the state level by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I urge you to prioritize these concerns and take appropriate steps to make sure that your state has (acceptable rates),” U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack said in a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “Americans in need should have access to essential benefits without unnecessary delays” and mistakes.

Vilasack wrote, “People should not lose access to food because states are unable to review their applications in a timely fashion.”

The governors of neighboring Ohio and Indiana received similar warning letters.

Demand for SNAP benefits has increased since recipients lost some federal financial assistance after the COVID-19 pandemic ended, said Anna Almanza, the policy director at the Food Bank Council of Michigan.

“There were some really robust state and federal resources during the pandemic, but those things all dropped off in combination with things starting to cost more,” she said, referring to high inflation rates.

As applicants for benefits face delays and errors, some turn to other charitable resources offered by food banks, putting more stress on them, Almanza said.

She said food banks cannot provide the same level of support as the SNAP program. “So, we have an interest in making sure that people have access to all of the federal programs they could be eligible for.”

The problems are not unique to Michigan, said Alicia Huguelet, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

In addition to higher demand brought about by pandemic-related economics, she said the rapid transition of state employees into remote work has spurred redundancies and unnecessary complications that slow the handling of applications.

“Sometimes, places ended up with a ‘spaghetti-works’ of processes that aren’t as efficient or streamlined as you’d want them to be,” Huguelet said.

The “top level” solution to delays and errors in states like Michigan is channeling additional funding to staff and technology for processing SNAP cases, she said.

Almanza said Michigan has made some recent improvements

For example, the state has received over $1 million in federal grants in the last five years. The funds supported additional technology to administer the SNAP program.

Legislation passed last year also removed the “asset test” requirement from Michigan’s application process. The change, which became effective this month, made 700,000 additional households eligible for benefits, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.

The state has also invested in an online portal for applying for benefits. However, Almanza of the food bank council said that the online focus may be too narrow to best serve those seeking SNAP benefits.

Her organization’s affiliated food banks have reported that many people using their services either can’t access or prefer not to use online systems. They opt instead to come in person or use a phone, she said.

Michigan should invest further in an expanded call center and in-person services at local health department offices, Almanza said.

The state should also make it easier for users to find information about other benefit programs with referrals, she said.

“The federal funding is great, but only if the state can administer it right and people access it,” Almanza said.

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