Although the numbers have improved significantly since the Rhode Island ACLU sued the Department of Human Services last July for failing to process food stamp applications in a timely manner, almost 3 out of 10 applicants eligible for expedited food stamps are still not being processed within seven days as required by federal law. Those are the results gleaned from reports prepared by DHS and provided to the ACLU as part of the settlement agreement entered in the lawsuit last October.

Under federal law, states participating in the food stamp program are required to process food stamp applications within thirty days of the date of application, and to provide expedited food stamps to eligible households within seven days. More than 100,000 Rhode Islanders participate in the program. The lawsuit, brought by the ACLU and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, alleged that the state’s failure to timely process food stamp applications was resulting in the denial of “desperately needed assistance to help [applicants] feed their families,” and forcing them to “suffer hunger as a result.”

Under a detailed settlement order entered six months ago in response to the suit, the state agreed to a series of steps to ensure its compliance with federal law requirements, including preparation of monthly reports containing detailed statistics on the food stamp applications received by DHS and the time it took the agency to process them.

Those reports, the most recent of which was submitted at the end of last week, continue to paint a troubling picture for those most in need – applicants eligible for expedited food stamps. On the one hand, the lawsuit has clearly had a very salutary effect: the percentage of eligible expedited applications processed within the required seven days increased dramatically from 27.4% in September to 70.2% in January. However, those figures also mean that almost 30% of the state’s neediest applicants may not be receiving their benefits in the time period prescribed by law.

Separately, the statistics show that timely processing of non-expedited applications has improved from 71.3% in September to 94% in January. In the five months since monitoring has begun under the court order, over 25,000 Rhode Islanders have applied for food stamps, including more than 10,000 who have been found eligible for expedited processing. In emphasizing the importance of prompt processing, the ACLU’s court brief had pointed out that “food stamps are an essential source of support that permits [families] to survive at the barest edge of poverty.”