Mark Griffin had a well-paid job as an ophthalmological assistant for two decades and was earning enough to buy a $150,000 home in Baltimore. But a disastrous car accident a few years ago eroded his financial stability dramatically.
At a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Annapolis on Tuesday, Griffin described how he was able to raise subsistence living using several government assistance initiatives. Griffin qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — known as food stamps — but gradually saw his monthly benefit drop from about $170 a month to $11 a month.
However, he said, it helped. “I had to go to whatever program I could just survive.”
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Griffin’s monthly SNAP benefit rose to $250 a month.
“I was very surprised,” Griffin recalls. “I was glad I was able to feed myself as well as catch up on some of the bills.”
The pandemic was a financial disaster for hundreds of thousands of Marylanders. But for many, like Griffin, the added or extended benefits were a godsend. State officials say lists of Marylanders seeking food stamps have inflated by 35% (although a Maryland Department of Human Services spokesperson Tuesday night did not provide statistics on the initial number of recipients).
But as the number of beneficiaries has increased, so has the number of fraudulent SNAP violations.
Many families have seen that their SNAP accounts have been drained by scammers. And now, with emergency federal regulations for food stamp benefits repealed, fringe benefits are dwindling and families are once again struggling to make ends meet.
“It was like going into the twilight zone for days just to get information” about how to navigate the post-pandemic system, Griffin said.
The state of the state’s response to the pandemic — specifically the vagaries of SNAP — was the subject of Tuesday’s two-hour hearing. The session began with testimony from leaders of the Maryland Department of Human Services, which is responsible for administering the federal SNAP program, which originates in the USDA.
But in a certain way the session seemed to be upside down — and state officials should finally have been made available to answer the questions, complaints and concerns of food stamp recipients and the groups advocating for them.
The 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 about $3,000 to $66 after it was hacked.
“My kids went with almost nothing” during this time, she recounted. Although local, state, and federal law enforcement have cracked down on SNAP scammers, this has provided little respite or relief for families who have lost money, many lawmakers note.
Department of Human Services officials said they have largely faced the challenges posed by the pandemic, but acknowledged that the massive caseload has sometimes led to system disruption. They also said that SNAP benefits problems during COVID-19 weren’t unique to Maryland and that HRM came out of the pandemic stronger and smarter.
“We have simplified the application process when other states have been making it difficult,” said Lords Padilla, the state’s minister of human resources. “We’ve made it easier to access the benefits.”
However, the pandemic has affected customers and employees of government agencies alike. When the pandemic first emerged, the federal government waived a requirement that families re-apply for SNAP benefits annually.
But that waiver was lifted this spring, and over the past few months, tens of thousands of Maryland families have lost their entitlements, in part because they didn’t know how the reapplication process was going. Calls to the Human Resources Department’s helpline have ballooned, and the agency recently secured approval from the Public Works Council to increase the number of workers in its call center from 70 to 115.
Daniel Witt, the acting deputy secretary of human resources, said maximum wait times for callers seeking information are now 30 to 45 minutes – something he acknowledged is “unacceptable” – but will be reduced to 5-10 minutes when all workers are Newcomers got on board.
But many senators were skeptical when Padilla said she didn’t think her administration needed any additional staff beyond those recently empowered by the Public Works Council, and questioned why the agency was struggling to serve Maryland’s most needy families, according to Senator Malcolm Augustine (D-Prince George’s) expressed, “We have something incredible surplus. “
“Gov. [Larry] Padilla said Hogan always said yes to additional requests “to staff.
State officials said the fraud cases, which gained widespread publicity across the country, only affected about one in 1,000 food stamp recipients in Maryland. But the result has sometimes been disastrous for families like the Renee who have seen much of their merits dry up.
The federal government can make late payments to families who have been defrauded, after it has completed an investigation into the case. Meanwhile, California and Washington, D.C., arranged for fraud victims to be compensated directly and upfront with their own money — something Maryland was reluctant to do.
“State money should be leveraged and used” to make up for the loss, said J.D. Robinson, the anti-hunger program coordinator at the Maryland Group for Hunger Solutions.
Lawmakers promised more oversight of the state’s food-stamp program — and hinted that there could be legislative remedies to make the system more efficient.