Applications increasing for Kandiyohi County economic assistance programs
Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services have seen a jump in the number of applications for the economic assistance programs such as the Minnesota Family Investment Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medical Assistance. Part of the jump could be the ease of applying with a smartphone-friendly application. The increase of the income guidelines for SNAP could also be playing a part.
WILLMAR — The state of Minnesota, with help from federal and local governments, provides several programs to assist residents who are struggling financially. Counties, including Kandiyohi County, manage the programs for the state, including accepting applications and proving eligibility.
"Federal, state and local resources work together to help people meet basic needs, so they can live with dignity and achieve their highest potential here in Kandiyohi County," said Jennie Lippert, Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services director. "Financial needs can occur for individuals for many reasons and for reasons beyond their control."
Lippert, along with staff who work with the financial assistance programs in the county, presented to the Kandiyohi County Board on Tuesday.
Anyone can apply for these programs, though all of them have specific rules, regulations and guidelines that must be met. Eligibility requirements vary from program to program.
"Kandiyohi County and the state of Minnesota work closely to assure financial support and health care to all who qualify," Lippert said.
In 2022, Kandiyohi County has seen a marked increase in the number of individuals and families applying for these financial assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Minnesota Family Investment Program, Housing Supports and Medical Assistance.
"Even though people may not be aware if they are eligible or not, they are applying," said Deb Grunwald, county HHS supervisor.
So far this year, the county has received 409 applicants, up from 221 in 2021. That is an 85% increase over the year. Grunwald believes there may be at least two reasons for the increases, though there may be more.
The first possible cause is the new state online application portal called MNBenefits . It launched in March and makes it easier for people to apply online for assistance. Applicants can also apply for several different programs at once.
"It is smartphone-friendly," Grunwald said, making it more accessible for those who have a smartphone but not a computer.
The second reason for the jump in applications this year could be changes in the SNAP income guidelines. To be eligible for SNAP, a household can now make up to 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, an increase from 165%. In Kandiyohi County, that would be $55,500 for a family of 4. It used to be $45,837.
"It makes more people eligible for the programs," Grunwald said.
There has also been an uptick in applications for Emergency Assistance. During the last two years of the pandemic, many non-profits such as United Community Action Partnership and the Salvation Army had additional resources available for people to use when hit with a financial emergency. Since most of those resources have now expired, residents are turning to the county for help.
"We are seeing people come back to get some help for emergency assistance, for evictions or their utilities being shut off," Grunwald said.
The coronavirus pandemic had a major impact on financial programs. There were many waivers put into place to make it easier for people to receive and keep benefits while the major impacts of the pandemic were being felt.
However, many of those waivers have expired and some others for programs such as Medical Assistance and SNAP could soon be taken away. The main worry is people who have benefited from those waivers will soon find their benefits either reduced or taken away because they are no longer eligible.
"The federal government has indicated they will give us 60 days notice when that will happen, when they are going to lift those waivers," Grunwald said. "We are a little concerned about what that will look like."
With the increase in applications, the staff at Kandiyohi County have seen their workload grow. The state requires all applications for assistance to be processed within 30 days. There are also cases were an application is expedited and must be done within 24 hours.
"Our eligibility staff work really hard to make sure everyone is treated with dignity and respect and that each case is processed according to guidelines," Grunwald said.
The county is serious about program integrity.
Staff do internal reviews of reports to make sure there are no errors, and additional training and assistance is given when needed. Kandiyohi County does have a fraud investigator in-house, which makes it easier to investigate fraud claims when they arise. The Minnesota Department of Human Services also does audits of the county's financial assistance programs, to make sure they are running properly.
Kandiyohi County just received its results for the SNAP program over the last fiscal year, and no errors were found.
"We are really proud of our staff, for working so hard through all of these times," Grunwald said.