significantly improve needy Texans' ability to get aid. Under the traditional method, food stamp application benefits don't start until a person has received an application, correctly fills out, signs and returns it to the state.

According to Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the USDA, the FNS is open to helping the HHSC offer better access.

"This is a matter of the law catching up with technology," she said. "We at the federal government are open to innovative strategies to more efficiently serve clients. We've been working in partnership with the state on this."

But the USDA says the law is clear.

"Under the new call-center model, when people call in for food stamps, there must be a signature on the application," she said.

This means call centers can't actually accept a phone call in place of an applicant's signature, and must instead refer callers to other application methods.

"When people call in now," Daniel continued, "the application is sent to them, they fill it out, they send it [back], and when the application is returned to the state, the timetable for processing applications starts."

Forging Ahead

Despite the debate, the HHSC rolled out the new call centers and TIERS after modifying its original food stamp application processes. The fix, however, doesn't really make applying for food stamps any easier. In fact some say the change makes it even more difficult to get food stamps than before.

By rolling out TIERS without resolving the signature issue, those applying for food stamps run into a problem.

To remedy the situation while the issue is being ironed out, the HHSC is taking the process of emergency food stamp applications -- which can be granted in days instead of weeks -- and using that for standard applicants, according to Goodman. The trouble is that it requires an applicant to either apply online, via mail or fax, or the most common method, at a local office -- many of which no longer exist due to consolidation.

According to a comprehensive Feb. 7, 2006, report conducted by the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priority -- a self-described "nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) research organization committed to improving public policies and private practices to better the economic and social conditions of low- and moderate-income Texans" -- the temporary fix Goodman spoke of doesn't help at all.

"The call centers will not accept applications for food stamps over the phone," the report reads. "Instead, they will direct applicants to apply online, via the mail/fax or at a local office. This is likely to cause a delay in the filing date for many families who don't have access to the Internet and can't get to a local office. Any delay in the filing date also means a cut in benefits for these families in the first month," the report continued, highlighting the fact that applicants get retroactive benefits from the date of application, which the phone call was supposed to substitute.

Meanwhile, the FNS will observe and monitor the remaining test phase of the call center/TIERS rollout. Currently operating in only two counties -- Travis and Hays -- the launch date was Jan. 20, 2006, with statewide rollout expected in six months.

Whether the phone call controversy will be resolved remains unclear. However, both the state and federal government are attempting to work together and toward improving access, though neither side was able or willing to explain if, how, or when the situation will be resolved.

"Since Jan. 20 through Tuesday [Feb. 14], we've gotten 36,500 calls, and we've also had more than 300 Internet applications come in," said Goodman. "Especially for the working poor, we felt it was really important to give them options other than eight to five on how they could apply for services. When they're not at work, they're generally not getting paid, so it's a real hardship."

On the federal side, Daniel expressed hopefulness that they can resolve things.

"We've certainly continued our partnership with the state. We have walked them through what is needed to start the application process at the time of the phone call," she said. "We continue to work in partnership with them."

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.