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Utah streamlining assistance paperwork

Pilot program features shorter application forms

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Following complaints that people are tired of buying red tape with their food stamps, the state has implemented a six-month pilot program to streamline its cumbersome public assistance program.

It is trying out a new abbreviated application form for public assistance such as food stamps, financial aid, child care, medical care and other aid administered by the state Department of Workforce Services.

Advocates for the poor say the old application form leaves people not only stigmatized by having to ask for public assistance but also frustrated by how difficult the process is.

DWS Director Raylene Ireland said she decided to initiate the pilot program after she took the "Food Stamp Challenge" last year. She and other participants were asked by the advocacy group Crossroads Urban Center to fill out an application as a way to highlight how difficult even making an application for aid is in Utah.

"I found out that parts of the application were confusing and it used hard-to-understand jargon," Ireland said.

When she got back to her office, she offered her own challenge to the staff — make a shorter, easier-to-use application.

The four-page trial application, which is being tried out in the Midvale and Richfield employment centers, is six pages shorter than the current one. The questions are much clearer, and there are 13 questions under two general topics of household makeup and financial status. The current application has more than 50 questions under nine different categories.

Bill Tibbitts, an anti-hunger advocate with Crossroads Urban Center and a member of the team that redesigned the application, said it is a "major step toward removing the obstacles that prevent hungry, working, Utahns from getting the food they need for their families."

Nearly 600 Utahns petitioned Gov. Mike Leavitt last May to reduce the hassles of public assistance programs.

Debra Gonzales, a single mother of five from Salt Lake City, said she went six months without stamps because of bureaucratic aggravation. She said she was asked so often to verify background information she had already verified that she gave up "because it got so frustrating and discouraging."

As an example, Gonzales said she was asked for and provided copies of a vehicle bill of sale three times. She did eventually get stamps, "but at one point I had decided I wouldn't go back to the state for help. When you have five kids and are working, it just became too big a hassle."

The current Utah application has been criticized for requesting information unrelated to public aid. One question on the form asks: "Are you interested in receiving information about assistance available for parents who wish to legally give up custody of a child for adoption?"

About 82,000 Utahns are on food stamps now. The federal funding that pays for the program is a boost to the economy, not a drain as food stamps are often characterized, advocates say.

They also point out that interest in the program, which has risen as the economy has declined in recent months, is expected to increase more because the right of illegal immigrants to get food stamps has been restored.

The new form also has an eligibility guide to help applicants. Those who receive aid will be surveyed over the next few months to assess the effectiveness of the new application process.

E-MAIL: jthalman@desnews.com