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Louisiana Purchase Automated Benefit Card

Up to 150,000 households who otherwise wouldn’t qualify — including some with six-figure salaries — are expected to apply for food stamps as qualifications are relaxed to help in the recovery from Hurricane Ida.

Louisiana has 832,088 individuals in 401,531 households already receiving food stamps. That’s about 18% of the state’s 4.6 million residents on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, because of their low incomes: $34,452 gross annually for a family of four. SNAP recipients are covered, receiving $680 per month to buy groceries — the amount increases $835 on Oct. 1 — so they don’t need to sign up for the program covering disasters.

When disaster strikes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expands the rules, as the agency is expected to do this week, to make those benefits available to higher-income households.

Called D-SNAP, the aim is to help out more middle-class homes. Louisiana’s median income is $51,073 annually. But the rules are keyed to the amount of hurricane damage a survivor incurred, so virtually everyone at every income level could qualify depending on the amount of damage they suffered and their individual situation.

Because the qualification formula reduces gross incomes by the amount of damage expenses, the state Department of Children & Family Services, called DCFS, can’t say how many rich people have qualified in the past.

“For somebody who makes a pretty high income but doesn’t have access to income coming in now, say their business was closed down because of the storm, and all of their other resources have to be dedicated to recovery, then they probably would be eligible,” said Danny Mintz, director of safety net policy at the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Budget Project, an organization that studies financial policies and advocates on behalf of low and middle income people.

“But the important message is if they think they may make too much to qualify and they had losses and are experiencing hardships, it’d be worth their while to apply,” he added.

Last year after Hurricane Laura, out of the 101,000 people who expressed interest, 31,707 households phoned in to officially apply. Of that number 25,489 households, representing 52,927 people received D-SNAP.

The state Department of Children & Family Services needs to estimate for the federal government how many households could apply from the Hurricane Ida event. The agency also needs to prepare for a tsunami of applications once the USDA gives its final nod.

They looked at past experiences not only from Hurricane Laura, which struck southwest Louisiana last year, but also Hurricane Gustav and other storms that affected the same 25 parishes as Ida as well as surveying damage from the recent storm to make a best guess of 150,000 applications.

The agency is training roughly 700 staffers to handle a sophisticated computer program into which they will input a slew of income and expense figures, hit the button and be able to tell most applicants immediately if they qualify and for how much. Benefits are uploaded on what looks like a credit card that pays for purchases at the cash registers in the stores. The cards are mailed to D-SNAP recipients.

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DCFS officials are organizing a three-phased operation that would have applicants from specific parishes — the ones with mail delivery and power restored and grocery stores reopened — to phone in at specific times. DCFS wants wait times of less than 10 minutes and to handle applications in minimal amount of time.

Until Hurricane Laura, people had to stand in line to apply in person. Now, applications are handled by phone, probably from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Even for those who prequalified, individuals will have call to officially apply.

Because of the number named storms that come ashore in Louisiana, the DCFS staff are familiar with application issues and know the questions to ask.

“We are nothing if not experienced here in Louisiana,” said Shavana Howard, DCFS Assistant Secretary for Family Support, which oversees D-SNAP. “They’ll ask about the various expenses that you may not have thought about. Did you have to buy dinner? Did you have to buy gas?”

Like much else in government, determining eligibility is a complex process.

Very generally, for regular food stamps, a family of four’s combined annual gross income must be $34,452 or less. Plus, when rent and utilities, child support and other allowable expenses are deducted, the net income can be no more than $26,508 per year.

If both gross and net income levels are met, the family of four receives $680 each month to buy groceries.

D-SNAP waives some of the requirements.

For instance, there’s no gross income standard. The applicant just has to meet the net monthly income of $2,990 or less, which works out to $35,880 annually. But the calculations that determine that net income number includes deductions for disaster-related expenses.

DCFS will look at applicant’s take-home pay in the month following the disaster, add in all available cash resources, such as checking and savings account balances. Then they subtract from that gross amount the dollars spent or expected to be spent on disaster-related expenses during a 30-day period, which the USDA sets when its order is issued but probably will begin a couple of days prior to Hurricane Ida making landfall on Aug. 29.

Disaster-related expenses cover a wide range, including food lost when the power went out, repairs to the home, medical or funeral costs, appliances and tools, dependent care, moving expenses, generators, mops and cleaning agents, even pet boarding fees.

The criteria is spelled on the DCFS website at http://www.dcfs.louisiana.gov/page/360

“Every scenario is so different. You may make $150,000 a year but lost your entire house or your business closed or damages are extensive and you could qualify,” Howard said. “That’s why we typically don’t put out income limits because it changes for every person. What we do say is … when in doubt, please apply. Let us determine eligibility for you.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.