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Poor, Jobless Hit Hardest By Assistance Program Tech Glitches

New York Times report highlights how underfunded technology upgrades on the state level have left many of the neediest on hold

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

As the New York Times revealed Tuesday, in the rush to modernize social service payment programs—such as food stamps, unemployment, and Medicaid—faulty websites and underfunded technology initiatives on the state level are leaving many of "the poor, the jobless and the neediest" perpetually on hold.

Untold in the media storm that has surrounded the botched Obamacare website roll-out is the broader story of how those who are seeking work or government assistance are increasingly spending "countless hours in front of buggy websites" and listening to the drone of a busy signal when they try to get through by phone.

In October, notes the Times, food stamp recipients in 17 states were unable to use their electronic cards for a day because the computer system that runs the program was down. And over the years, similar problems with systems were recorded in Georgia, Massachusetts, Texas and Colorado among other states.

The Times reports:

The problems come at a time when state legislatures are increasingly demanding efficient methods for people to apply online for aid, from food stamps to unemployment benefits.

“It’s like calling a radio station trying to get tickets,” said Gary A. Grimes, 52, an unemployed construction manager in Pensacola, Fla. His $275 weekly checks stopped after he tried to log in to report that he had gotten a week-long job but still needed benefits.

"[T]he problems with the unemployment sites have pointed to something much broader," the Times continues, "how a lack of funding in many states and a shortage of information technology specialists in public service jobs routinely lead to higher costs, botched systems and infuriating technical problems that fall hardest on the poor, the jobless and the neediest."

A 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office found that a number of states were struggling to modernize their unemployment insurance programs because of limited funding and lack of sufficient expertise and training to make the updated systems work.

Meanwhile, state departments—often with a backlog of tens of thousands of unanswered customer service calls—have begun to hold vendors accountable for these failures by withholding payments and imposing fines for ongoing glitches. 

“The recession really ended up highlighting the fragile state of a lot of these systems,” said George Wentworth, a senior staff lawyer with the National Employment Law Project.

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