Allan Blackman knew he didn’t qualify for food stamps.
The 77-year-old owns his own home in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle and makes $50,000 a year, which is why he disregarded a phone call and a letter telling him he may qualify for the state’s Basic Food Program.
“During these tough economic times, we know that every little bit counts,” read the letter, which was sent to his home in March from an organization called the WA Benefits Center. “Join the thousands of Washington residents who are already receiving an average of $81 a month to use for groceries.”
The letter directed Blackman to call a 1-800 number to work through the application process.
“I thought, this must be part of the Obama campaign to get everybody on welfare,” Blackman told KIRO Radio. “That was what went through my head.”
The WA Benefits Center, a not-for-profit that operates out of a call center in Philadelphia, began subcontracting with the state of Washington this year to identify elderly residents who could qualify for food stamps and help them enroll.
DeAnna Minus-Vincent, a spokesperson for the organization, said only 43 percent of seniors in the state of Washington who are eligible for the Basic Food Program receive the benefit.
“They’re cutting their pills in half. Their doctors are giving them prescriptions that say ‘take with food’ when they don’t have enough food,” she said. “In the end, it benefits all of us when we can keep people healthier, when we can keep people stronger, when they’re allowed to survive on their own steam.”
The WA Benefits Center is a branch of Philadelphia-based Benefits Data Trust (BDT), which also has active campaigns in Pennsylvania and Maryland. BDT has helped roughly 340,000 low-income individuals apply for nearly a billion dollars in public benefits over the past eight years, according to Minus-Vincent.
The USDA Food and Nutrition Service pays the organization $80 for each individual who fills out an application and an additional $50 if the application is approved, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health and Services.
“It sounds preposterous to me for a government that is basically broke, bankrupt, to be spending money like that,” Blackman said. “I’m not opposed to people who are desperate for food getting some sort of food benefit, but the notion that they’ve got to go rounding up people to give them this benefit? That’s crazy.”
During the month of February, 14 residents applied for food stamps through the WA Benefits Center and six were approved, according to DSHS. Those figures represent the most recent data available.
“We get outreach to a population that we’re concerned about not having enough nutritious food,” said Babs Roberts, director of the Community Services Division at DSHS. “This is not necessarily a handout, it’s a nutrition program.”
According to Minus-Vincent, Benefits Data Trust uses a “data-driven approach” to identify those who could qualify for food stamps. For example, the organization uses a list of those who receive heating assistance to determine if they should also receive food benefits.
But, as was true for Allan Blackman, the “data-driven approach” isn’t always successful and letters have been sent to those who do not qualify to receive the benefit.
“There are times when the data that we get isn’t as clean as we would like it to be,” Minus-Vincent said.
The state has nine contractors who do outreach for the Basic Food Program. The WA Benefits Center is a subcontractor of one of those contractors, Within Reach. Roberts said they are expected to reach a 65 to 70 percent approval rate for applications.
“Contractors who are not performing well…we’re going to be working with them and discussing whether or not they’re effective in their outreach,” she said.
Roughly 590,000 households, or about one million people, in Washington state are on food stamps. While contractors provide additional outreach, those who wish to receive the benefit can walk into one of 58 community service offices statewide, apply online, or seek assistance at a local food bank.