3. County and state operational responsibilities
- County operations , complaint processes and chain of command
- Protection of applicant and recipient privacy
- Access to federal and state rules and regulations
- Making complaints to the Food & Nutrition Service
- State agency responsibilities
- For related information, see How the Food Stamp Program is structured
County operations, complaint processes and chain of command
The county offices take applications for food stamps, decide if people qualify for food stamps and make sure they do the things the Food Stamp Program requires. Most of these tasks in the local offices are done by “case workers” or “income maintenance workers.” These workers should be properly trained. [7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(6)(B)] The workers are in charge of the cases or files of people applying for or getting food stamps. The food stamp office must keep records, including papers that you give them, for at least three years. [7 C.F.R. § 272.1(f)] Workers and other officials in the food stamp office must follow federal and state laws and regulations. Local officials may not disregard official interpretations of the state food stamp agency’s regulations.
Each worker usually will work on many households’ cases. All workers have supervisors. If a food stamp household does not like something a worker has done or if the household cannot reach its worker, talking to a supervisor might help. The household should not put off asking for a fair hearing while it tries to talk to a supervisor. Supervisors have higher supervisors over them. Sometimes people need to talk to higher supervisors if their workers’ supervisors will not help. It is usually best to talk to each person in the chain of command in order. In other words, a food stamp household usually should try to talk with its worker, then the worker’s supervisor, then the supervisor’s supervisor, and so on, rather than calling a high official right away. But the household should never put off asking for a hearing if it thinks it has been denied food stamps that it should have received. The household can also complain to the state food stamp agency or to FNS. However, the household must request a hearing from its food stamp office. (See the sections about notices and hearings for related information.)
Protection of applicant and recipient privacy
State public assistance agencies are required by federal law and regulations to safeguard personal information against unauthorized use or disclosure. Information to be safeguarded includes individuals’ “names, addresses, amount of assistance, social or economic conditions, wages, agency evaluations, and medical data.” In practice this means the local food stamp office must respect the privacy of all the household members. Workers and other personnel in a local office must not repeat to other people things the household members may tell food stamp workers, except to those people who help run the Food Stamp Program or enforce laws about food stamps or other public benefit programs. [7 C.F.R. § 272.1(c). MPP § 66-201.3.]
Access to federal and state rules and regulations
The local office should have a copy of the federal food stamp rules and regulations and the California Manual of Policies and Procedures (MPP). The food stamp household has a right to see the state manual or handbook at any food stamp office. [7 C.F.R. § 272.1(d)(1); MPP § 63-201.41.] The household also has a right to see a copy of federal food stamp rules and other information about how the Food Stamp Program should be run. Upon request, copies of these rules must be made available to households at the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) main office and at any regional office of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). [7 C.F.R. § 272.1(d)] County law libraries, law school libraries and legal services offices may also have copies of federal and state regulations or state food stamp manuals.
The MPP is supposed to follow federal regulations, but sometimes it does not. Should the MPP or any other state policy or rule denies households’ rights under the federal statutes or federal regulations, households or their advocates should ask the CDSS to change the manual or rule. If CDSS will not do so, households working with their legal advocates should decide what to do. In some cases, where recipients and their advocates are unable to persuade the food stamp offices to respect their rights, they can protect their rights by complaining to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or by filing law suits in court. Contact your local legal services program for further help with these types of problems.
Making complaints to the Food & Nutrition Service
The part of the USDA in charge of the Food Stamp Program is the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). Food stamp applicants and recipients have a right to complain about the way CDSS or the local county welfare department (CWD) runs the Food Stamp Program. As explained, above, applicants and recipients can complain to the manager of the CWD, to the CDSS or to the regional FNS office or one of its field offices. The CDSS and the FNS regional office must look into complaints that they receive. [7 C.F.R. §§ 271.6(a)(2), (b)(2), 272.6(c)(3), (d)(2); MPP § 63-106]
If a household thinks it did not get food stamps to which it is entitled, it should ask the local food stamp office for a hearing. (For more information about the hearing process, see the sections of this guide about notices and hearings.) Although FNS does take complaints, FNS does not hold hearings. A food stamp household cannot ask for a hearing by writing or calling FNS. If a household has questions or complaints, it may want to talk to a legal aid or legal services office, a local anti-hunger coalition or a community action agency.
State agency responsibilities
Once a state agency agrees to run the program, it must make sure that people can get food stamps in every part of the state. All areas within California must have a Food Stamp Program. The rules should be applied the same throughout the state unless the USDA has approved a waiver. The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) must make sure that the program is run according to federal rules.
Often local county welfare departments (CWD) are slow to implement new regulations. If the CWD does not start following a new regulation on time, consider ways to make the office follow the law, described above.
- it is important to know that ambiguities in the food stamp regulations should be resolved in favor of applicants and recipients.
- all federal rules should be published as regulations under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). [5 U.S.C. § 553; 7 U.S.C. § 2013(c).]
- violations of the APA can be excused as “harmless errors” only when they clearly have no bearing on the procedure used or the substance of the decision made.
- rules may not deny households benefits if notice of the proposed rule-making did not give fair warning of the changes the agency was planning to adopt.
- rules normally go into effect 30 days after they are published in the Federal Register. Agency interpretations not published in accordance with the APA are given little weight.
- unpublished policies that increase benefits may, however, be binding. Sometimes these regulations give states options about how they will run the program. (In general this guide identifies which options California has chosen.) California must follow the California Constitution as well as federal laws and the U.S. Constitution.