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Efforts to modernize the state's food stamp program and weed out fraud have left thousands of eligible residents without benefits, according to advocates for the poor.
The problems were created by a new data-mining program that matches food stamp records with those at other state agencies to uncover unreported income.
As a result, people who might have earned small amounts of money have received letters from the state Department of Transitional Assistance demanding they provide proof of eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits - also known as food stamps - or lose those benefits.
Those who try to call the agency to get to the bottom of the matter find the agency's phone lines jammed.
"It's an absolute mess," Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst at the anti-poverty Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, told The Boston Globe. The state has "set up this impenetrable fortress and people have to claw their way back onto benefits they deserve."
State officials said they have no estimate of how many people have been affected by problems with the program. But the number of people receiving food stamps plunged by about 70,000 in Massachusetts between December 2013 and 2014.
Thomas Massimo, acting director of the Department of Transitional Assistance, acknowledged that concerns were serious enough to suspend the automatic mailing of the computer-generated letters last week. The letters are now reviewed by staff first.
He said the new data system saved about $12 million in food stamp overpayments to 100,000 households, but it is unclear how many of those households were entitled to the benefits.
John Coakley, 65, of Boston, who uses a wheelchair, had to prove twice that he qualified for $124 a month in food stamps after he earned $155 for two days of city poll work during elections. He was cut off from benefits for three months in the process.
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