- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Residents applying for food assistance would get a receipt from government agents and some low-income New Jerseyans would qualify for expedited access to benefits under bills moving through the Legislature.

A state Senate committee approved this week two bills aimed at speeding up delivery of benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - once known as food stamps. The Assembly has already passed similar legislation by wide margins.

Lawmakers say the efforts are needed because New Jersey ranks next to last in the country for processing benefit applications within 30 days. Federal officials are warning that New Jersey could lose aid if “corrective action” isn’t taken, State Sen. Raymond Lesniak said.

One bill would require the county welfare or social services agency processing benefit requests to give applicants a receipt showing when the paperwork was received, plus a checklist showing all required documentation including outstanding information.

New Jersey processed applications within the 30-day window 68.81 percent of the time in 2013, according to the most recently available federal Agriculture Department figures. Only Nebraska ranks lower. The average rate among all states, Washington, D.C., Guam and the Virgin Islands is 87 percent, according to the data.

Though county agencies manage the program, Lesniak criticized the Christie administration for not implementing similar measures through regulations.

“What’s happening is the Christie administration has absolutely neglected the administration of our food stamp program,” he said.

A spokesman for the governor did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Lawmakers say the benefits often get delayed because applicants do not completely fill out applications. The bills, they say, are aimed at addressing that.

“Food is not a luxury. Having to wait for these benefits because of a mistake made on the application or missing documents can have significant consequences for a family that is struggling financially,” Assembly sponsor Gary Schaer said in a statement.

The other bill requires the state Department of Health Services to ensure an expedited application process for certain residents, including those with a monthly gross income of less than $150; migrant or seasonal farm workers considered “destitute” by the commissioner or others who meet certain income requirements. The bill calls for the benefits in these cases to be processed within seven days from application.

“There is a hunger crisis in New Jersey that is being made worse by a mismanaged food assistance program that leave some families without food waiting up to six months for assistance,” Lesniak said.

New Jersey had the biggest jump in the nation in SNAP enrollment from August to September, according to the most recently available data from the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center. The state saw an increase in enrollment of 3.49 percent for that period, from 876,183 participants to 906,735.

Lesniak said the actual number of people in the state who don’t know where their next meal is coming from is actually about 1.5 million people.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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