Greater obstacles have recently been put in the way of applying for, obtaining and renewing food stamps. Previously, everything could be taken care of in one centralized location, the nearest Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) office. By visiting this location, filling out the designated stack of personal information, providing proper identification and spending a few hours trickling through the bureaucratic rigamarole, you could hand in hard copies to a living, breathing case worker. People who needed assistance knew where to go via car, bus, bike or foot, and could spend a designated time frame sorting through the specific details of their situation in person.
That is no longer the case. Now, the procedure has been primarily relocated to the Internet. In order to apply or reapply for food stamps, it is required that the applicant create their own account via the COMPASS (Common Point of Access to Social Services) system. While this development appears to be progressive from a convenience standpoint—it is sometimes difficult for those in need to travel to a designated office—it presents challenges unprecedented by the established face-to-face procedure. Those include computer literacy, Internet access and unfamiliarity with the change in general.
All of these issues can best be explained with a visit I made to the DFCS office on North Avenue a few weeks back. More than willing to fill out the proper paperwork by hand, I found the online application to be more easily navigable upon looking up the process on the website. I completed each page to the best of my ability, patiently waited for a phone interview, sat on hold for 45 minutes to speak to the interviewer and was told that I simply had to present proper identification and pay stubs to obtain an Electronic Benefits Transfer card.
Since I didn't have a scanner and didn't want to wait, I decided to bike across town to the DFCS office. I thought that I could show up, wait my turn, talk to someone and be on my way to grocery access on a consistent basis. What I witnessed, on the other hand, inspired my response to Tom Crawford's Dec. 25 Capitol Impact column in Flagpole, on the difficulty of obtaining Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
One woman sat behind a desk, in front of which a long line began to build soon after I walked into the office. Uninterested in eavesdropping but unable to ignore the conversations right in front of me, I noticed a pattern. Every person in front of me talked briefly to the frazzled desk worker about renewing or reapplying for food stamps. Each person was told "We only do that online, now."
People responded with a range of emotions including confusion, frustration and desperation. The woman would then ask them, "Do you know COMPASS?"
No. Not one person was familiar with COMPASS.
She would then go on to explain what it is, how it works, how it is the only method now, etc. I watched every single would-be applicant in front of me try to register what exactly they were supposed to do concerning this entirely new system for filling their bellies. I don't think anyone walked out thinking "Perfect! I know exactly what to do now. I'll just go home, hop on the computer, scan my documents and send them to the very office I just left in hopes that they get back to me before I starve waiting for online confirmation."
Approaching the desk with a sense of dread after witnessing the food stamps episode of Kafka's The Trial, I thought surely I wouldn't have the same issues. I was lucky enough to have the computer access it takes to finish the application. I finished the interview. I was told I only had to present my IDs and pay stubs before I could complete the entire process. I walked to what I was so sure would be the finish line, only to hear: "You have to do that online. Are you familiar with COMPASS?"
"Well, yes," I responded. "I actually have an account and completed the application and phone interview. I didn't have a scanner, so I thought it would be easiest to simply walk in and show someone my documents."
"You have to send the documents online as well."
"I don't understand. I have everything required right here"
"Yes, but you have to send it along with your online application."
"I can't just show this to someone here? Like a real person who can clear me?"
"You can scan them over there if you like. I can send you to someone, but they'll tell you the same thing."
I looked over at the single computer and scanner with a mounting line behind it. I had to be at work in an hour, so I gave up and biked home. Fuming, I considered the absurdity of what had just happened. I wasn't that upset about my own situation; I can continue eating at work, buying $1 tacos and tamales and blowing the tip money I really need to use to catch up on rent. I can read, I can write, I can use a computer, I have three service jobs to get by. It's not always fun, but it could be much, much worse.
What about the majority of people applying for SNAP? Those most in need often do not have the resources necessary for a strong reading background. Wading through the instructions on the website becomes an issue compounded by basic computer literacy and skills in website navigation. Computer skills, of course, generally come along with computer ownership and access. Those fortunate enough to have regular computer access, whether from a public source or in their own home, often also have the good fortune of being able to afford and more easily obtain food.
While I can see how the idea of a common point of access is a beneficial one, my observations for a mere 20 minutes at the DFCS office suggest otherwise. I believe that moving from an in-person to an online application system will eliminate a number of people who are eligible for and desperately need help. Fewer state employees to pay, less paperwork, fewer mouths to feed. Happy holidays indeed to those who enjoy the multi-million-dollar stadiums and toss their catered food in the trash can.