A Baltimore County woman's lawsuit against the state for failing to provide food stamps in a timely manner is scheduled to go to court Monday, days after the release of data showing that only 59 percent of eligible Marylanders were receiving the government assistance.
The state has fallen to 41st in the nation in the percentage of eligible families receiving food stamps, according to 2007 data released by Advocates for Children and Youth and based on numbers calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But officials from Maryland's Department of Human Resources called the figures outdated and said the state has made significant strides in its efforts to streamline the food stamp system, including allowing interviews over the telephone, enhanced online applications and quicker training for new employees.
DHR officials say the improvements have led to a 32 percent increase in the overall number of active cases from 2007 to 2008, and that as of last month, about 527,000 people were receiving food stamp benefits, a record high.
Rosemary W. Malone, deputy executive director of the Family Investment Administration at DHR, said the department is set to receive $1.4 million from the federal government for enrolling the most families in the food stamp program in the Mid-Atlantic region.
But Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said the figures indicate that more people are receiving assistance because the pool of applicants has substantially increased during the economic downturn. Joseph said the number of eligible people not getting food stamps likely has increased proportionally as well.
"We're not aware of any outreach effort that they have done differently that would explain the increase," Joseph said. "Have they made it easier for people to enroll? People are waiting all day. They have to wait in long lines, and that's why the lawsuit has been brought."
In April, Miracyle Thompson, a pregnant Baltimore County mother of two young boys, sued the state after she applied months earlier for food and medical benefits and failed to receive the services. Federal law requires that those emergency benefits be approved within 30 days.
Assisted by the Public Justice Center and Homeless Persons Representation Project, the case is scheduled to go before Judge Barry Williams in Baltimore Circuit Court. Thompson's case, advocates say, is indicative of a greater problem and the department is not addressing breakdowns in the system. The Advocates for Children and Youth report goes on to say that application barriers and insufficient outreach are the primary causes for Maryland's 2007 ranking, which is 7 percentage points lower than the national average and a 3 percent decline from the previous year.
About 350,000 Marylanders who are eligible do not receive food stamps, Joseph said, including people who have applied and are past the 30-day mandatory period and those who have never attempted to use the program but fall below the poverty threshold.
Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald says that her department has its share of problems, including high employee turnover because of low salaries, but is headed in the right direction.
"We're prepared to go to court and make the court aware of the things that we've done," Donald said.
Despite efforts, advocates and the state have failed to reach a settlement in the lawsuit.