20. The interview process
- Applicants and the interview
- County workers and the interview
- The interview and verification
- Types of verification
- Limitations on data use
- Difficulties in obtaining verification
- Missed interviews
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. The other purpose is to gather additional information to determine the household’s eligibility for benefits. 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)
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 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. The state regulations, however, 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.) If the county cannot do a telephone interview for a household that the county is required to waive face-to-face (or who other qualifies for hardship), if the county must verify eligibility factors requiring seeing the person, it can do a home visit; it must schedule this visit in advance with the household. MPP § 63-300.45.
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 talk, call (866) 741-6241.)
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 to not 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 do in trying to get verification, not specific pieces of verification they must actually succeed in getting. The list should explain things that can be done to get pieces of verification, even if the applicant isn’t successful in obtaining them. 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. Applicants should try as hard as you can to get the things for which the food stamp office asks.
Types of verification
The food stamp office can get verification in four different ways:
- Documents or papers;
- References (“collateral contacts”);
- Home visits; and
- Computer and electronic information.
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”)
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; However, if 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:
- 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.]
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.
The county must 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, he must identify himself as a field representative and ask to be permitted to enter the applicants home. 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 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 computers at the agency that pays unemployment insurance benefits, computer records of other public benefit programs, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), some banks, the state department of motor vehicles, 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
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 keeps you from qualifying for food stamps or that reduces your food stamps, it usually must check this information before it reduces or cuts off your food stamps. [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.
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: Applicants cannot be denied food stamps just because they are unable to give the food stamp office what it needs. [See, e.g., Siemion v. Department of Pub. Aid, 522 N.E.2d 627 (Ill. App. Ct. 1988).] Furthermore, a household has not refused to cooperate just because its attempts to cooperate are unsuccessful. [See, e.g., Atkinson v. Ledbetter, 360 S.E.2d 66 (Ga. Ct. App. 1987).] An applicant who relies on what a worker at the food stamp office says is needed is not refusing to cooperate. [See, e.g., Chambers v. Commonwealth, Dep't of Pub. Welfare, 466 A.2d 281 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1983).] An applicant’s lack of information does not constitute a refusal to cooperate. [See Atkinson, 360 S.E.2d at 66.] A household is not refusing to cooperate if it is unable to get verification. [See, e.g., Augelli v. Commonwealth, Dep't of Pub. Welfare, 468 A.2d 524 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1983).] However, applicants can be denied food stamps by refusing to give the food stamp office what it asks for.
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. [7 C.F.R. §§ 273.2(e)(3), 273.2(h)(1)(i)(D); MPP § 63-300.4, 301.41.] 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.