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May 26, 2009

Going Hungry Because of a Computer Glitch?

Mail-9 Colorado is a wonderful place to live; we have beautiful mountains, friendly people, and hundreds of days of sunshine every year.  One study ranked us 4th as the best state to live in; another put us 6th for percentage of sunny days.  

But there are a few places where we just don't measure up.  We're at the bottom when it comes to getting public benefits to eligible people.  Colorado is 48th in food stamp participation - getting these benefits to people who qualify for them - and another study showed that we're 52nd in food stamp compliance, just above Guam.  

These aren't even our own state tax dollars we're not getting - these are federal dollars that are just sitting there, waiting to go to the people who qualify for them, people who earn less than $1500 a month for a family of three.  We're so bad at supporting low income families that we've had to pay the federal government $11 million in fines; in a state with a budget crunch, knowing that we're losing money because of our incompetence irks me.  According to one estimate, as many as 75,000 people aren't getting their benefits each year.

Why, you may be wondering, is a state with such a wealth of resources, with millions of smart and thoughtful people, doing such a crappy job feeding people? 

One of the reasons is technology, our reliance on what seems to be a poorly made multi-million dollar computer system that didn't work well to begin with, one that takes hours for workers to navigate.

Almost eighty percent of food stamp benefits go to families with children.  That means that children are going hungry because of a computer glitch.  Because so many people have lost their jobs in the recession, had their hours cut at work, or had a health crisis with six-figure bills, thousands more are having to swallow their pride and ask for help for the first time - and they're finding that they have to wait for months to get it. 

A handful of parents on my block are out of work, and even more people in my circle have lost their jobs or had their pay and benefits cut dramatically.  Though they're all searching for work and some are picking up temporary or contract work to make ends meet, savings only last so long.   Some are having private, tearful discussions about which bill to pay that month, and what to do now that the cupboards are empty.  If they go apply for benefits - or if they already have - they'll run into a lot of computer-related red tape and hassle.

Though Colorado has a network of generous food pantries that can provide food to families while they're waiting,  oftentimes these pantries have limited resources and provide only a three or four day supply - helpful in the short term, but not enough to cover a wait for benefits that more often is stretching beyond thirty days to two months or more.   Some people then get kicked off because of more computer glitches, and have to wait yet again.  Food stamps, according to the government, is supposed to be our first line of defense against hunger.  That's not how it's working in Colorado. 

In a world in which we have so much technology at our fingertips, in which laptops can be sold for less than $100 and phones are smaller than a deck of cards, I find it mind-boggling that our computer system is presenting so many barriers.  We can create hundreds of applications for iPhones from voodoo dolls to banks of annoying sounds, but it will take us a year and a half and millions of dollars to begin to fix a system that hasn't worked since it was launched five years ago.  

And what, I wonder, will the state of Colorado do in the meantime, as the recession pushes more and more families to have to ask for help, families who encounter an already overloaded, malfunctioning system? 

"We're working on it," just doesn't cut it when you're trying to feed hungry children. 

I don't know how you explain to a child that he can't have anything for dinner because his home state doesn't have its act together. 


Original Rocky Mountain Moms Blog post.

Oz lives in Denver with her firefighter husband, fearless son, and formerly chubby dog and still fat cat.  She's currently expecting her second child.  She also blogs at http://www.babble.com/CS/blogs/knockedup/default.aspx

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