By Scott Mooneyham
Thursday, January 23, 2014 — RALEIGH —The latest from the troubled state agency responsible for getting food stamps to eligible recipients is that a program backlog is being caused by more than just glitches in a new computer system.
No doubt, that is comforting news to the thousands of families that have been waiting three months for benefits.
That backlog had largely been blamed on a new computer software system for processing claims and eligibility, a system called NC FAST. The person who came up with the acronym must have been a fan of the old Soviet newspaper produced by the Communist Party, Pravda. In Russian, that means “truth.”
More recently, officials in the Department of Health and Human Services have pointed to other causes for the delays.
They say that case workers also have been forced to spend time preparing for a change in how the federal government is going to calculate income for Medicaid recipients. And they point to changes that have had to be made to the system because of the Affordable Care Act.
A spokeswoman for the state agency called it a “perfect storm.”
Of course, that characterization ignores that policymakers are often changing eligibility criteria, reimbursement rates and service delivery in the Medicaid program.
It also ignores something just as relevant.
While the backlog has been rising, the number of people served by the program in North Carolina has been falling. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of North Carolinians who participate in the food stamp program dropped from 1,756,474 in October 2012 to 1,541,482 in September 2013, representing a 9.4-percent decrease.
Those numbers suggest that state officials ought to be processing fewer requests for benefits.
Critics of the food stamp program often point to the rising number of Americans who receive the benefits, noting that only eight percent of Americans received food stamps in 1975, while about 15 percent do today.
Those critics conveniently leave out that the participation rate was roughly the same in 1975 as it was in 2000, with the biggest jump accompanying the Great Recession in 2009. From 2007 until 2011, the number of recipients rose by 70 percent.
Now that the effects of the recession have eased, the numbers are falling again, and Congress has also reduced monthly maximum benefits after they were increased in 2009.
You might think that the decrease would make it easier for those overseeing the program in North Carolina to administer it.
Meanwhile, the backlog has the feds threatening to make North Carolina pick up the full cost of administering the program, a move that would hit both the state and county governments.
So, state and local taxpayers would shoulder a financial burden that federal taxpayers now pay, even as state government fails to deliver on what the state constitution refers to as one of its first duties.
If that happens and the McCrory administration continues to hold no one accountable, the governor may ultimately find that he himself is held accountable.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist for Capitol Press Association and covers activities of the N.C. Legislature.