Dallas County food stamp program almost perfect

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 28, 2003

With more than $12 million in funds distributed, almost 5,000 households served and only ten certification workers, it’s amazing the Dallas County Food Stamp program is able to open it’s doors.

They’ve done a little better than that, posting an error rate of less than 3 percent. This year, the Dallas County Food Stamp program received its third award for excellence, reporting an error rate less than 9 percent three years in a row, and less than 6 percent for two years.

Each of the 10 certification workers carries an average of 600 to 700 cases, approximately 520 households each.

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Error rates are determined by the applications filled out and how accurate that information is. If a single piece of paperwork is mis-filed, it’s an error.

Unfortunately, the job requires more than just minding your P’s and Q’s for office protocol. The error rate is also determined by intentional or unintentional mis-reporting by clients. So every time a client mistakenly puts the decimal point in the wrong place, it counts towards the department’s errors.

The head of the program, James Ware, said, &uot;We don’t settle for less than an award.&uot;

Dallas County is the fifth highest county in Alabama for food stamp distribution. As part of the &uot;Six Million Dollar Club&uot; the department compares with the likes of Jefferson, Mobile and Montgomery County, areas with much larger populations and lower unemployment rates.

According to Ware, most of the counties on the top five list actually handle fewer cases than Dallas, especially when you compare the case numbers to their population. All of the five counties have populations more than double that of Dallas.

With an unemployment rate of 15 percent or more, it’s no wonder Dallas is in need of assistance. Part of the department’s cases come through the temporary assistance program, with their five case workers, but the majority of all food stamp cases come directly through the department.

Ware said, &uot;To be able to maintain such a success rate in this environment speaks well of the people working here.&uot;

The groups high success rate is part of many things. Anne Montgomery, head of the food stamp department at Dallas County Department of Human Resources says her people are dedicated and hardworking, and except for two, most have been on staff for at least five years.

Johnnie Melton, the Food Stamp department head, is one such veteran. &uot;It ain’t easy,&uot; she said, &uot;We make sure everyone applying provides us with verification of everything. We’re just not sitting here taking their word for it.&uot;

After an application is received, the applicant is called in for an initial interview. Several applicants are called in simultaneously, gathered in a group setting and watch a video. They are then separated for individual interviews, the kind Montgomery calls &uot;probe&uot; interviewing. Case workers are encouraged to ask direct questions concerning income, bank records and other financial information.

At anytime, the department can request court records, bank records, employment information, records from the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations and even information from the United States department of Internal Revenue Services; all just to double check information provided by an applicant.

During the individual interview, applicants are required to bring employment and financial documents. If any of the information is conflicted or out of order, an applicant may be required to return for another interview, with even more documentation. &uot;It’s a paper trail,&uot; said Melton.

An average case takes the department roughly 30 days to process. If it’s fast-tracked the application process can be completed in seven, but this only occurs in emergency assistance situations.

Their error rating is determined by the Quality Control Department at DHR. The QCD takes a random sampling of cases and actually goes into the homes of applicants, pretty much doing everything to verify all information on a set of applications. If any of the information is wrong, for whatever reason, it is regarded an error for the Food Stamp department.

In the face of all this constant pressure, the workers and all their supervisors say it’s a labor of love. &uot;I’ve never had a desire to do anything else,&uot; said Meldina Morgan, of the Family assistance department. I like helping people.&uot;