New York City faulted for delays in getting emergency food aid to struggling families

This article was originally published in Spectrum News NY1. Read it here.

Thousands of struggling families in New York City are enduring unacceptably long wait times for emergency food and cash aid because of delays that violate a 2005 federal court order, advocacy groups said in new legal filings.

Under that ruling, people who qualify for expedited Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or E-SNAP, are supposed to receive them within seven days of applying. If applicants show they have an emergency, the city must give them cash aid for food the same day. But many New York City residents are waiting over a week or even months for the benefits, the Legal Aid Society and other advocacy groups said.

They filed a contempt motion Monday in federal court in Manhattan, asking a judge to order the city to reduce backlogs and comply with the 2005 court mandate. City officials said Tuesday that they have been making progress on the lags while handling a significant increase in applications.

The advocates say that they’ve been talking to officials for the past year about the missed deadlines.

“The city’s broad and systemic failure to adequately provide E-SNAP and cash assistance to eligible New Yorkers has left thousands of families in dire straits struggling to feed themselves and their children and meet their basic needs,” Legal Aid lawyer Emily Lundgren said in a statement.

SNAP application backlogs are an issue around the country. New York is one of 13 states where less than 80% of SNAP applications were processed on time in the 2022 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service.

In New York City, the advocates cited city records showing that from April to September of this year, about 13,700 families had to wait more than a week for E-SNAP benefits. The city’s Human Resources Administration met the deadline to provide aid only about half the time during that period, they said. In October 2022, only 20% of aid applicants got their benefits on time, the records showed.

One resident, Laquena Watson, applied for E-SNAP and cash aid in June after she gave birth to her second child, stopped working and her parental leave benefits had expired. She didn’t receive her benefits until early August, and only after she reached out to the advocacy groups and they contacted the city, according to the contempt motion. It was filed by the Legal Aid Society, the National Center For Law And Economic Justice, Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation and the New York Legal Assistance Group.

To qualify for E-SNAP, certain applicants must have less than $150 in monthly gross income, and their liquid resources cannot total more than $100. People applying for regular SNAP benefits, widely known as food stamps, are supposed to receive them within 30 days.

Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom said Tuesday that the city had been trying hard to tackle the backlogs, including by hiring over 700 people in the last year to focus on cash and SNAP benefits. Officials hold weekly meetings on the issue, said Williams-Isom, who oversees health and human services programs.

“I’m not sure what more we could be doing at this time. We’ve made a lot of progress,” and are on track to make substantially more by the end of March, Williams-Isom said at a City Hall news conference. She called the advocacy groups’ filing “surprising.”

This past July, 1.7 million residents were receiving SNAP benefits, up from 1.5 million in July 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. About 490,000 people were receiving cash aid benefits in July 2023, up from 333,000 in 2019, according to Department of Social Services spokesperson Neha Sharma. The department oversees the Human Resources Administration.