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20. The interview process

The food stamp interview serves two main purposes: One purpose is to acquaint the applicant with the program, to answer questions that applicant may have, and to inform applicants of their rights and responsibilities. The other purpose is to gather additional information to determine the household’s eligibility for benefits.  Interviews are conducted at application and recertification.

Counties are required to schedule the interview “as promptly as possible to ensure eligible households receive an opportunity to participate within 30 days after the application is filed.” MPP § 63-301.46; 7 C.F.R. § 273.2(e)(3).  Counties may opt into an “on-demand” phone interview process, but once it has opted in, all interviews in that county must be done “on-demand” unless the applicant requests an in-person interview or if the household is screened to be apparently eligible for Expedited Services.  ACL 14-20.  (Counties also have existing non-waiver authority to allow households to do a telephone interview without a scheduled appointment by calling into the county.)  Id.   

Applicants and the interview

The interview can be done with the head of the household, with his or her spouse, any responsible member of the household, or an authorized representative. Applicants are allowed to bring anyone they want to the interview.

The interview formerly was normally done by telephone, but may be done in-person in the office. (In 2007, California received a waiver to allow skipping in person interviews for everyone (permitting it to be in person or by phone, at the client’s choice.) Waiver of the in-person interview is now required (not optional) for all counties.  ACL 12-26.) NOTE: The state regulations, however, still only reflect the prior rules (which required the county waive the “face-to-face” interview if all household members are 60 or older, or disabled (MPP § 63-300.42) and permitted waiving the face-to-face if coming in person poses a hardship for the household. MPP § 63-300.43.

The interview is considered an “official and confidential” discussion. An applicant’s right to privacy must be maintained. The place where the interview occurs must be adequate to preserve the privacy and confidentiality of the interview. The scope of the interview cannot extend beyond the examination of eligibility for assistance. [MPP § 63.300.4; 7 C.F.R. § 273.2(e)1.]

Applicants have a right to ask questions during the interview. They also have a right to interpreter services for their interview. (If the county does not have an employee with whom they can communicate, clients can call the DSS Civil Rights Bureau at (866) 741-6241 to ensure an interpreter and, if desired, to file a civil rights complaint.)

County workers and the interview

County workers have a responsibility to make the applicant feel at ease in the interview. They must inform clients of their rights and responsibilities during the interview, including:

  • the right to a timely determination of benefits;
  • the responsibility to report changes; and
  • the right to non-discrimination.

[MPP § 63-300.4.] The worker should help applicants through the rest of the application process. If the applicant has not filled out all of the food stamp application, California requires the worker to assist in its completion. The workers are instructed not to simply review the information provided on the application but also to “explore and resolve with the household unclear or incomplete information” on the application. They also gather and review the list of additional items needed to complete the process. [Id.] (See the subsection below about the interview and verification for more information.)

When reviewing the client’s responsibilities, workers are also required to review reporting and other requirements during the interview, even though the applicant has not yet determined eligible. This helps to ensure that the applicant knows what is expected of him or her, if determined eligible. [MPP § 63-300.4.]

The interview and verification

During the interview the worker also will ask for proof about some things on the application. The Food Stamp Act requires the food stamp office to give applicants, at the time of application, a list of things they must do to have their eligibility determined. [MPP § 63-300.51(a); MPP 63-300.37.]

The list should be things applicants must prove, and provide examples. For example: Citizenship could be proved by a birth certificate, baptismal record, home birth attestation, etc.  The request cannot be for a specific type of verification, and cannot require that the person  actually succeed in getting the proof. The request must state that the county can help obtain verification, and may be able to pay fees related to getting the documentation.  In other words, the food stamp office cannot require applicants to succeed in getting all the information, but it can require that them show proof they have tried every possible means to get it. Counties must either use the CW 2200 or a local document that complies with all the provisions of law.  See ACL 09-01. NOTE: Many counties failed to modify their local forms; DSS has instructed them to do so, and the counties are in the process of reprogramming their automated systems.  In the meantime, adverse actions based on improper requests for verification (such as denials, terminations or disallowance of deductions) may be subject to challenge, even if beyond the normal 90 day appeal time, since the original request was defective.

Types of verification

The food stamp office can get verification in four different ways:

Documents and paper verification

Paper verification means documents like pay stubs, utility bills, a driver’s license or an I.D. card for another benefit program. [7 C.F.R. § 273.2(f)(4)(i); MPP § 63-300.541.] Counties are to rely on documents as the primary source of verification for all items except residency and household size. Counties cannot limit acceptable verification to any specific type of documentation. [MPP § 63-300.5(h)1.]

If applicants have receipts for recent rent or mortgage payments, telephone and utility bills, and child care expenses, they should take these receipts with to the interview. [See CDSS Checklist of Things to Bring to Your Interview.]

References (“collateral contacts”)

USDA contends that collateral contacts do not violate the privacy protections in the food stamp statutes or regulations. Only disclosures for other purposes are forbidden. USDA maintains that the privacy interest established by the Food Stamp Act is protected by the statement on the food stamp application that information provided is subject to verification. Because the applicant receives notice that statements on the application will be verified and has a chance to withdraw the application to avoid collateral contacts, USDA concludes that disclosures for verification are permitted. See 51 Fed. Reg. 7188 (February 28, 1986) (preamble to final rule). 7 C.F.R. § 273.2(f)(4)(ii); MPP § 63-300.542.]

References (“collateral contacts”) are people outside the applicants household the food stamp office calls directly for information to support what they have told the food stamp office. The food stamp office should only call collateral contacts when the paper verification you gave them is not good enough or when you could not get the necessary papers. [7 C.F.R. § 273.2(f)(4); MPP § 63-300.54.]

Applicants can designate the collateral contacts for the worker; if, however, the applicant does not designate a collateral contact or fails to identify one that is acceptable to the office, the worker may select a collateral contact. If the household does not want the food stamp office to contact a person it has selected, the household should be allowed to verify what it told the food stamp office in some other way or to withdraw its application. [7 C.F.R. § 273.2(c)(6).]

Collateral contacts may be made either in person or over the telephone. The acceptability of a collateral contact “shall not be restricted to a particular individual but may be anyone that can be expected to provide an accurate third-party verification of the household’s statements.” [MPP § 300.5 (h)(2).]

Examples of acceptable collateral contacts are:

  • employers
  • landlords
  • social services agencies
  • migrant service agencies
  • neighbors of the household

For example, the food stamp office might ask an employer to send it a letter to confirm what was said by an applicant about wages. Or the food stamp office might call a landlord or neighbors to confirm an address.

When contacting, workers are supposed to avoid disclosing that the household has applied for food stamps, and shouldn’t disclose any information supplied by the household, especially information that is protected by 7 C.F.R. § 273.1(c), or suggest that the household is suspected of any wrong doing.

The county is responsible for obtaining verification from acceptable collateral contacts. [7 C.F.R. 273.2(d)1.] The count shall not determine the household to be ineligible when a person outside of the household fails to cooperate with a request for verification. [7 C.F.R. § 273.2.]

Home visits

The food stamp office can only use home visits when documentary evidence is insufficient to provide “a firm determination of eligibility or benefit level”. [7 C.F.R. § 273.2(f)(4)(iii).] Home visits must only occur on a case-by-case basis and must be scheduled in advance with the household [MPP § 63-300.44]. Although required to work out a time with the applicant for the visit before a worker comes, however it does not have to tell applicants the exact time of day of the visit. Applicants do not have to let workers visit their home, but this could lead to a denial of benefits.

Home visits conducted by the food stamp office are reasonable searches that violate neither the Fourth Amendment nor the due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. [See S.L. v. Whitburn, 67 F.3d 1299, 1306-7, 131 (7th Cir. 1995).] When the field representative from the food stamp office makes contact with applicants, s/he must identify her/himself as a field representative and ask to be permitted to enter the applicants home. S/he is not permitted to enter without consent. Applicants must be informed that they may change their mind about consenting at anytime. Once inside the home, he can make note of anything in plain view that has to do with eligibility for food stamps. Only with consent may he see other areas of the home or look in closets, drawers, or other places hidden from view. [Id. at 1302.]

Computer and electronic data sources

The food stamp office also can check information given by the applicant with information from computer systems. [MPP §§ 63-300.58, 300.520-0067 C.F.R. §§ 273.2(f)(7), 272.8.]

California’s Income and Eligibility Verification System (IEVS) is the umbrella term used for the many computer matching systems that assist in the eligibility determination of all applicants and recipients the CalWORKs, Food Stamp, and Medi-Cal Programs. California has used IEVS since 1987 to verify information received from applicants and recipients. California Food Policy Advocates have created a detailed chart summarizing what IEVS matches with what in California.

The food stamp office commonly checks information from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and will check with residency with the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USBCIS) (formerly known as Immigration and Naturalization Services or “INS”).

The food stamp office may also be able to get information from the EDD computers (state unemployment and disability insurance benefits), computer records of other public benefit programs, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), some banks, the state DMV, tax collectors, and other agencies and organizations. The food stamp office may want information from these agencies’ computers because they have records about people’s wages, their benefit checks, their addresses and sometimes other things that affect whether they qualify for food stamps. The food stamp office usually will not tell applicants when it is checking information in this way.

Limitations on data use

See, e.g., Henry v. Gross, 803 F.2d 757 (2d Cir. 1986); 15,844 Welfare Recipients v. King, 474 F.Supp. 1374 (D. Mass. 1979); Juste v. Department of Health and Rehab. Servs., 520 So. 2d 69 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1988); see also Greater Cleveland WRO v. Bauer, 462 F.Supp. 1313 (N.D. Ohio 1978) (Privacy Act requires office to inform household of wage matching and possible fraud investigation and prosecution when it requests social security numbers).

There are reported court decisions limiting what the food stamp office can do with unconfirmed information it gets from computer matches, especially if that information may not be reliable. (See side note.)

If the food stamp office gets information from computer records that would result in a person not qualifying for food stamps or a reduction in food stamps, it usually must check this information before it reduces or cuts off the benefits . [7 C.F.R. § 272.8(c)(1)(ii).] It can check this information by asking you about it or by calling a collateral contact.

Difficulties in obtaining verification

Responsibilities: The household has primary responsibility for providing documentary evidence to support statements on the application and to resolve any questionable information. The county has responsibility to obtain information from acceptable collateral contacts.  The county must inform the applicant/recipient that it will help the person get the verification [MPP §§ 63-300.37; 63-300.5(i)], including payment of a fee related to its production [MPP § 40-126.33, which applies to county responsibilities to assist with applications, generally], and provide samples of what types of verification are acceptable.

Deadlines: The household must be given at least 10 days from the date of the request to provide required verification. [7 C.F.R. § 273.2(f).]

Unsuccessful efforts: Households are considered to have not cooperated with verification only if the refuse to verify.  [MPP §63-301.824.]  Applicants cannot be denied food stamps just because they are unable to give the food stamp office what it needs — however they must be advised that they can ask the county for help, and have alerted the county that they need help, to ensure there is not an adverse action, as otherwise counties will treat the failure to verify as a refusal to verify. Furthermore, a household has not refused to cooperate just because its attempts to cooperate are unsuccessful.

The county shall not deny CalFresh to a household based on a failure to cooperate when the person who fails to cooperate is outside of the household. [MPP §63-301.31.]  Excluded household members, as defined in §63-402.22, shall not be considered outside of the household, however. [MPP §63-301.311.]

Missed interviews

If applicants miss their first interview, the food stamp office must try to set up another interview. The county must notify each household that misses its interview appointment that it missed the scheduled interview and that the household is responsible for rescheduling a missed interview. If the household contacts the state agency within the 30 day application processing period, the state agency must schedule a second interview. [MPP § 63-300.4, 301.41; 7 C.F.R. §§ 273.2(e)(3), 273.2(h)(1)(i)(D).] If applicants miss a second interview, the food stamp office can deny the application. Applicants can call the food stamp office to ask for another interview if it has not denied already denied the application. If the food stamp office has issued a denial, applicants can apply again.