States Retool Food Stamp, Benefits Systems

Pamela M. Prah
October 25, 2011

Food stamp applicants in California and Texas no longer have to be fingerprinted, a change both states hope will save money and improve the process of distribution. 

That makes Arizona and New York City the only remaining jurisdictions that fingerprint — a requirement that opponents say scares off the needy from applying for food stamps while doing little to combat fraud.

The changes in California and Texas reflect a larger movement at the state level, spurred on by the recession and a record number of Americans getting food stamps and other public assistance: States are trying to make it easier for those seeking help and cheaper for state workers who process the applications and provide the benefits.

“Having state workers tied up doing administrative work that won’t improve the integrity of the program is a burden that states can’t afford now,” says Olivia Golden, who directs a national pilot project called Work Supports Strategies, in which nine states are simplifying how the needy get food stamps, welfare, child care and Medicaid coverage. One goal is to avoid having families provide the same information in different forms at different state agencies where different state workers essentially process the same information.

Barrier to online use

In California, one impetus for removal of the fingerprinting requirement was a desire to streamline the system and encourage some of the nearly 50 percent of food-stamp eligible Californians who aren’t getting them to actually sign up. Since the federal government, rather than the state, pays for food stamps, advocates say the more people sign up, the more the local economy is helped. “It’s common-sense math,” says Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Those are federal dollars that we are leaving in Washington, D.C., and that’s not where hungry Californians are.”

Bartholow also says the incidence of fraud in California’s safety net programs is low. Less than 1 percent of all households in CalWorks, the state welfare program, and CalFresh, the food stamp program, are referred for fraud investigation. Just 1 percent of those investigated are convicted of fraud. Back in 1999, eight states used some form of finger imaging to avoid benefit abuse, but all except Arizona dropped the requirement after studies showed the practice wasn’t cost-effective. Instead of fingerprinting, most states now match names with Social Security numbers, a technique the federal government endorses for preventing fraud.

Likewise, in both California and Texas, a major argument for dropping the fingerprint requirement was that cheaper and better ways were available to prevent food stamp fraud. “It’s been $30 to $40 million that we’ve wasted using this technology at taxpayers’ expense,” Texas lawmaker Armando Walle said when the issue was being debated there. “And no prosecutions, no convictions of anybody that has gamed the system” using that approach.

Just as important, the fingerprinting requirement made it harder for both Texas and California to automate and streamline their application and renewal process for an array of benefits through new online, self-service portals called and BenefitsCal.

“Texas was probably ahead of other states in terms of modernizing its system,” says Celia Cole of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an advocacy group in Austin. “Removing the finger-imaging requirement was the last barrier.” People now can now use the website to apply and check their benefits accounts for Medicaid, SNAP (the federal food stamp program formally called the Supple­mental Nutrition Assistance Program), welfare and nursing home care.

New technology

Most states are already moving in a technologically more advanced direction. More than 30 offer an online application for Medicaid and/or CHIP that can be submitted electronically, and 18 states allow recipients to renew their coverage online, according to a report from the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured that looks at all 50 states’ efforts on this front.

With tight budgets and fewer state employees to do the work, they are intent on reducing duplication. Golden, of the Urban Institute, says she was surprised that 27 states applied for the nine spots in the Work Supports Strategies project that got underway this year, funded with a $15 million grant from the Ford Foundation.

North Carolina is one of the nine states selected for the pilot program and is currently developing NC FAST, an integrated eligibility system for child care, SNAP and health care. The state plans to roll out NC FAST in phases, with SNAP going live this February, and Medicaid, child health, welfare and assistance for refugees to follow in February 2013.

Once NC FAST is in place, “customers will be able to apply online, check the status of their case, receive notices and information electronically and their case information will be available for staff to answer questions,” says Dean Simpson, who is leading the project at North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The state expects NC FAST to save taxpayers money by reducing the cost of maintaining paper records and will “hopefully eliminate the need to ask the same questions over and over again between various program areas,” Simpson says. 

A similar effort is underway in South Carolina, which also was selected for one of the Ford grants. “The overarching goal of the Work Support Strategies grant is to reduce the ‘hassle factor’ for those who qualify for Medicaid, TANF and SNAP assistance,” says Jeff Stensland, a spokesman for the South Carolina Health and Human Services.

Colorado and New Mexico, also grant winners, hope to rework their systems to avoid having people going on and off the system, a process known as churning. This often happens because the recipients didn’t fill out the paperwork in time to continue getting benefits once the initial period of eligibility ended. For the state, churning means more paperwork, but for the recipients, it can mean losing benefits for weeks. 

The other states participating in the Work Supports Strategies project are Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Federal health law a factor

States have been trying to upgrade, consolidate and modernize their benefit systems for years, but the federal health care law also is prodding them to act more quickly. The federal law not only will expand state Medicaid programs substantially by 2014 but also will require states to create a single online application for Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the new health insurance exchanges if the state decides to create one.

Overhauling the way the needy apply for and get public assistance isn’t easy  as folks in Nebraska can attest. The state’s new online system, called ACCESS Nebraska, is to be fully operational next June. But it is already partially active. The system lets a person use one form to apply online for SNAP, Medicaid and other benefits, and replaces state caseworkers with call centers.

But client advocates are hearing complaints that callers are put on hold for 45 minutes and that documents are often lost. Another concern is that the elderly, disabled and those who aren’t proficient in English have problems using the online system and understanding the forms.

For example, Nebraska has a population of refugees who speak Arabic and Burmese dialects, some of whom have received forms in Spanish. “Modernization is a great thing, as long as it is done in a responsible way,” says James Goddard of Nebraska Appleseed, one of several advocacy groups that are sponsoring “listening sessions” to give benefit recipients the opportunity to talk about what works, and doesn’t work, with the new system.

Roger Furrer, executive director of Community Action of Nebraska, says the state is trying very hard to correct the problems, “but we’re concerned that people are being denied benefits that they are entitled to” while the state works out the kinks.

The state says it wants to make clear that people can still make an appointment at a local office if they prefer to talk to someone in person. Also, more than 100 people will be added soon to answer phones. “We know it’s very difficult for our customers when they can’t reach us and have to hold,” the state said in a handout during the October 17 “listening session” in Lincoln. “We are working hard to reduce the wait time.”

This article originally appeared on, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that reports and analyzes trends in state policy.  It is reprinted here with permission.

Pamela M. Prah writes on social policy for She is a veteran Washington reporter and is an adjunct journalism professor at American University. 

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