Mark Griffin held a well-paying job as an ophthalmic assistant for two decades, earning enough to buy a $150,000 house in Baltimore. But a catastrophic car accident a few years ago significantly eroded his financial stability.
At a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Annapolis on Tuesday, Griffin described how he managed to build a living through several government aid initiatives. Griffin qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — commonly known as food stamps — but gradually saw his monthly benefit drop from around $170 per month to $11 per month.
Still, he says, it helped. “I had to do whatever program I could just to survive.”
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Griffin’s monthly SNAP benefit increased to $250 per month.
“I was so surprised,” Griffin recalled. “I was happy to be able to feed myself and catch up on some bills.”
The pandemic has been a financial disaster for hundreds of thousands of Marylanders. But for many, like Griffin, the extra or extended perks were a godsend. State officials say lists of Marylanders seeking food stamps have increased by 35% (although a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Social Services on Tuesday evening did not provide statistics on the gross number of beneficiaries).
Yet, as the number of recipients grew, so did the number of SNAP fraud abuses.
Many families have had their SNAP accounts emptied by fraudsters. And now, with the phasing out of emergency federal food stamp regulations, the extra benefits are dwindling and families are once again scrambling to make ends meet.
“It was like going into the twilight zone for days just to get information” on how to navigate the post-pandemic system, Griffin said.
The state of the state’s pandemic response — and specifically the ups and downs of SNAP — was the topic of Tuesday’s two-hour hearing. The session began with testimony from leaders of the Maryland Department of Social Services, which is responsible for administering the federal SNAP program, which originated with the US Department of Agriculture.
But the hearing, in some ways, seemed to be upside down – and that state officials should have been made available at the end to answer the questions, complaints and fears of food stamp recipients. and the groups that defend them.
Senators also heard from Renee, a single mother of three from Baltimore County who did not give her last name. Renee described how her SNAP account suddenly went from around $3,000 to $66 after being hacked.
“My kids went with almost nothing” to eat during that time, she said. Although local, state and federal law enforcement authorities have worked to crack down on SNAP fraudsters, it has brought little comfort or relief to families who have lost money, have noted several lawmakers.
Department of Social Services officials said they had largely coped with the challenges posed by the pandemic, but acknowledged that the overwhelming workload sometimes led to system outages. They also said the issues with SNAP benefits during COVID-19 were not unique to Maryland and that the Department of Human Resources has emerged from the pandemic stronger and smarter.
“We streamlined the application process when other states made it difficult,” said Lourdes Padilla, secretary of state for human resources. “We have made it easier to access benefits.”
Yet the pandemic has taken its toll on clients and employees of government agencies. When the pandemic first hit, the federal government waived a provision requiring families to reapply for SNAP benefits each year.
But that waiver was lifted this spring, and in recent months tens of thousands of Maryland families have lost their benefits, in part because they didn’t know how the reapply process worked. Calls to the Department of Human Resources helpline have skyrocketed and the agency recently won approval from the Public Works Board to increase the number of workers at its call center from 70 to 115.
Daniel Wait, acting assistant secretary for human resources, said maximum wait times for callers seeking information now stand at 30 to 45 minutes – which he acknowledged is “unacceptable” – but will be reduced to 5-10 minutes when all new workers are on board.
But many senators were in disbelief when Padilla said she didn’t think her department needed additional workers beyond those recently authorized by the Board of Public Works, and wondered why the agency was struggling to serve Maryland’s neediest families when, in the words of Senator Malcolm Augustine (D-Prince George’s), “we have an incredible surplus.”
“Governor. [Larry] Hogan has always said yes to extra requests” for staff, Padilla said.
The fraud cases, which received wide publicity nationwide, affected only one in 1,000 food stamp recipients in Maryland, state officials said. But the result has sometimes been disastrous for families like Renée’s who have seen a substantial part of their benefits dry up.
The federal government is able to reimburse families who have been defrauded after an investigation into the case is complete. Meanwhile, California and Washington, DC, have arranged to compensate victims of fraud directly and upfront with their own funds — something Maryland has been reluctant to do.
“State funds must be mobilized and used” to make up for the loss, said JD Robinson, hunger relief program coordinator for the advocacy group Maryland Hunger Solutions.
Lawmakers promised greater oversight of the state’s food stamp program — and hinted there could be legislative remedies to make the system more effective.
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