Justice served: Missouri SNAP program under fire for lengthy wait times

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Kansas City, Missouri – On Thursday, a federal judge declared that Missouri’s social services department breached the law in its handling of the state’s food assistance program. U.S. District Court Judge M. Douglas Harpool found that the state’s practices, such as lengthy call center wait times and inadequate accommodations for people with disabilities, violated regulations under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Americans with Disabilities Act. These issues at Missouri’s Department of Social Services’ call center have effectively denied qualified residents proper access to vital benefits.

“While call wait times fluctuate and have shown some improvement, the record demonstrates too little progress,” Harpool wrote. “Consequently, Missourians who suffer food insecurity have been forced to either go hungry or seek alternative sources of food when their applications are denied.”

In February 2022, a federal lawsuit was filed against the department, claiming that the state’s “dysfunctional” call center deprived eligible residents of SNAP benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps. Plaintiffs described struggling to find food while exhausting their prepaid phone minutes as they waited on hold for interviews. Individuals with disabilities also had difficulty understanding application forms but couldn’t get through to the call center for assistance.

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Interviews are required to enroll in or renew SNAP benefits. Without them, applications and renewals are automatically denied after 30 days, even if applicants attempted but failed to connect through the call center. Legal records show that about half of SNAP denials in the state occur due to missed interviews. According to The Independent’s data from late last year, the average call center wait time for a SNAP interview exceeded an hour.

A federal judge declared that Missouri's social services department breached the law in its handling of the state's food assistance program

“The high percentage of denials based on failure to interview is a direct consequence of the failed administration of defendant’s SNAP program,” Harpool wrote in his order.

“These denials are not based on the applicant’s eligibility but on the inadequacies of [the Department of Social Services’] process,” he wrote.

The New York-based National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, and Stinson LLP filed the lawsuit on behalf of individual low-income Missourians and the advocacy group Empower Missouri.

“Today’s decision is a vindication of the rights of Missourians,” said Katharine Deabler-Meadows, attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

“The Court has recognized the immense harm that DSS is causing to people who depend on SNAP to feed themselves and their families,” she said. “We are excited that DSS will now have to implement systems that ensure all Missourians can access SNAP.”

The decision orders the social services agency to come into compliance with federal SNAP law and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and outlines several steps the agency must take, under the court’s supervision.

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The steps the state must follow, as outlined in the order include: 

  1.  submitting a report with specific changes it will make to comply with the law within 30 days;
  2. filing monthly reports with the court with detailed data on SNAP applications and wait times, and filing that report with several members of Missouri state government outlined in the order;
  3. submitting a proposed plan of action and timeline of implementation “to address shortcomings in the administration of SNAP as identified” within 90 days, including a reduction in call wait times and denials based on failure to receive an interview and compliance with the ADA.

After the state meets the court’s order, the court will “determine what, if any, further actions, orders, remedies, or proceedings are appropriate,” wrote Judge Harpool. In previous hearings, he had expressed concerns about the state’s progress since the initial lawsuit.

“I continue to be amazed that it’s been since this case started,” he said in a January motion hearing, “that the state’s whole focus is how can we avoid liability rather than how can we get these benefits to our citizens.”

However, Hardin Haynes, the attorney representing the Department of Social Services (DSS), pushed back against this characterization.

“The whole time this has been going on,” he said in the January hearing, “DSS has been doing what it can to increase its ability to do interviews throughout this process. That has never stopped.”

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A spokesperson for the DSS didn’t immediately respond to requests for comments. Previously, the agency maintained that it’s trying to hire more staff, provide overtime, automate assistance, and contract with private call centers. DSS leaders highlighted challenges in securing additional staff and cited resource constraints, requesting $4 million for a “call center bot” this year to increase automation and reduce the burden on call center employees.

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