Maryland is tackling stubborn delays in processing applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and last month the state said it got close to federal compliance for the first time in almost a decade.

The state’s Department of Human Services has been plagued by chronic processing delays for years, through multiple administrations — a violation of state and federal requirements that leaves thousands of eligible Maryland families without benefits.

The consequences of delayed processing have become more acute as food prices rise amid inflation and welfare recipients struggle to stay enrolled in SNAP. Theft of benefits also has increased exponentially in recent years, The Banner previously reported.

DHS spokesperson Brian Schleter said in a statement that the department is hiring and updating its technology in an effort to reach or exceed the federal standard by Oct. 1.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“This was not a priority in past years; now it is a major point of emphasis,” Schleter said in an email. “We do not want anyone to wait a minute longer than they should to receive the assistance they need to provide for themselves or their family. And we are working diligently to make this a reality in our state.”

But the department has a history of promising — then failing — to reform its SNAP application process, dating to a 2009 lawsuit from welfare recipients and local advocates. Despite a court mandate to remedy the issue, the agency quickly fell back into old habits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service requires states to approve or deny SNAP applications within seven days for expedited cases and within 30 days for regular cases, which would roughly equate to an annual “application processing timeliness” rate of 95%. The USDA calculates the compliance rate by considering the number of timely approved applications in a state and the total approved applications.

By this formula, Maryland has averaged below 90% for 12 years. In January, the state DHS reported a monthly rate of about 88% statewide and had a backlog of about 9,000 applications.

Maryland isn’t alone in its struggles to meet federal compliance standards. In 2022, only six states had a compliance rate above 95%. Despite this, states face few repercussions from the federal government, leaving local advocates to take up the fight.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In 2009, lawyers at the Homeless Persons Representation Project and the Public Justice Center sued DHS over delays in enrollment for SNAP, cash assistance and medical benefits. At the time, DHS had an 83.5% compliance rate, which the agency attributed to staffing shortages.

A Baltimore judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering DHS to achieve a compliance rate of 96%. However, in the following years, that didn’t happen. From 2009 to 2024, Maryland has been as low as 81.5% and rarely exceeded 90%, according to statistics from the USDA.

Depending on the local jurisdiction processing the applicants, the compliance rate can be even lower. DHS branches in Baltimore County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Wicomico County, which process a significant portion of Maryland’s SNAP applications, have a compliance rate 20% under the national requirement, the data shows.

Schleter said the recent processing delays were in large part due to vacancies in the Family Investment Administration, the arm of state social services responsible for approving and managing federal SNAP benefits. Job vacancies jumped from about 7% to above 19% during the pandemic, he said.

But, as of last month, the office’s vacancy rate stood at just below 6%, he added.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

State social services issued a memo in February outlining a corrective action plan to shore up staffing, waive extraneous application requirements and share workloads across DHS offices. Schleter said it’s working, pointing to a compliance rate of almost 95% last month.

The state must make its better compliance stick — something that has bedeviled DHS in the past.

Maryland met the federal compliance target for 19 consecutive months from 2010 to 2012, around the time of the court case. Because of those strides, the judge handling the case lifted the performance mandate. At the time, advocates warned that it was too soon to remove the court mandate.

“We’re really concerned that they still haven’t put in place all of the things they told the court in the corrective action plan would allow them to sustain the level of achievement,” Debra Gardner, the legal director at the Public Justice Center, told The Baltimore Sun at the time.

A year later, Maryland’s rate dropped to 89%.

Brenna Smith is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner.

More From The Banner