The state’s efforts to modernize the food stamps program and root out fraud have instead cut off thousands of deserving residents from their benefits, leaving many unable to buy food, pay bills, or both, according to advocates for the poor.
The problems were created by a new data-mining program that matches food stamp records with those at other state agencies, such as the Department of Revenue, to uncover unreported income. As a result, people who might have earned small amounts of money — for example, poll workers on election days — have received threatening letters from the state Department of Transitional Assistance demanding they provide proof of eligibility for food stamps or lose those benefits.
And many have lost them because they were unable to get through the agency’s jammed phone lines to resolve issues in time.
“It’s an absolute mess,” said Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, an antipoverty group in Boston. The state has “set up this impenetrable fortress and people have to claw their way back onto benefits they deserve.”
State officials said they have no estimate of how many people have been affected by problems with the program, known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But the number of people receiving food stamps plunged by about 70,000 in Massachusetts, a nearly 9 percent drop, between December 2013 and 2014 — far steeper than the 1 percent decline nationally as the economy improved.
Thomas G. Massimo, acting director of the Department of Transitional Assistance, acknowledged that concerns were serious enough to suspend the automatic mailing of the computer-generated letters last week. The letters are now reviewed by staff before going out.
Massimo said the new data system saved about $12 million in food stamp overpayments to 100,000 households, but it is unclear how many of those households were entitled to the benefits.
“I don’t know that any of them are in error,” Massimo said. “We are concerned with making sure we’re not putting artificial barriers in the way of clients, but we do have a program integrity obligation as well.”
John “Jack” Coakley, 65, of Boston had to prove twice that he qualified for $124 a month in food stamps, but still was cut off from benefits for three months in the process.
Coakley, who has used a wheelchair most of his life, worked in the polls for two days during election season, earning $155 from the city.
Those earnings, reported to the Department of Revenue and flagged by the data-mining system, generated a letter demanding that he prove his earnings or have his benefits terminated.
Coakley, whose only other income is Social Security, said he tried to call the state Department of Transitional Assistance to tell them he had worked minimally, but he could not get through. He then went to Boston City Hall, where workers faxed his information to the Department of Transitional Assistance.
The agency said it never received it and closed Coakley’s file, forcing him to return to City Hall and repeat the process. His benefits were reinstated this month; in between, Coakley scraped by eating soup he bought on sale.
“It was very tough getting by and very frustrating when you try to contact someone and never get an answer,” he said. “It leaves you aggravated.”
The data mining is part of a $34 million overhaul of the food stamp information-technology system designed to “strengthen client service” by streamlining case management, agency officials said. The overhaul was largely done in-house, Massimo said.
But as problems mounted, Governor Charlie Baker’s office received a spate of letters from doctors, food bank workers, and nonprofit agencies citing the concerns.
The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute said it has fielded calls from angry poll workers who are no longer receiving food stamp benefits. In many cases people said they never received a warning letter, and in other cases people said they received as many as 14 in two days.
In a letter to Baker, Catherine D’Amato, president of the Greater Boston Food Bank, said a “significant” number of senior citizens suddenly lost their benefits for “erroneous reasons,” resulting in an increased demand on the food bank.
She called the benefits a necessity for parents of families and a “vital source of food to keep their children healthy,” and added: “We have seen and heard thousands of stories from clients who have lost their benefits.”
Earlier this month, Children’s Health Watch, a network of pediatricians, health researchers, and policy experts, said in a letter that the system had created serious problems for parents, citing the case of one mother whose toddler was diagnosed with “failure to thrive,” a condition when a child is unable to gain weight and grow as expected.
The woman had SNAP benefits cut off in October because the new system detected that she had earned wages in 2012, even though she had never worked for the company reporting them. She provided proof of her current income, but her benefits still ended.
“Extreme demands for verifications of out-of-date information and automated case closures due to unfiltered data-matching is extremely troubling,” said the letter, signed by three pediatricians at Boston Medical Center.
Diane Sullivan, a single mother of five in Medford, said her decision to participate in a research study for a stipend — an extra $150 a month — resulted in a Department of Revenue match and an “accusatory” letter from the Department of Transitional Assistance. She said she called the state hot line to prove that she still qualified for most of her benefits, waiting on hold until she was disconnected.
Sullivan, 41, lost her benefits for a month. She would not disclose the amount she receives, but said she continued to work at her part-time job and shifted money to buy food for her family. Ultimately, she fell behind on rent and utility payments.
“The system is messed up,” Sullivan said. “Stop trying to blame poor people for being poor and recognize that your system is picking on people who are absolutely trying to do the right thing.”