Demands Rise for Kandiyohi County Economic Assistance Programs – West Central Tribune

WILLMAR – The state of Minnesota, with the help of federal and local governments, offers several programs to help residents who are struggling financially. Counties, including Kandiyohi County, administer programs for the state, including accepting applications and proving eligibility.

“Federal, state and local resources are working together to help people meet basic needs, so they can live with dignity and reach their highest potential here in Kandiyohi County,” said Jennie Lippert, Director of Kandiyohi County Health and Social Services. “Financial need can arise in individuals for many reasons and for reasons beyond their control.”

Lippert, along with staff who work with county financial assistance programs, presented to Kandiyohi County Council on Tuesday.

Jennifer Lippert

Contributed / Kandiyohi County

Anyone can apply for these programs, although all have specific rules, regulations, and guidelines that must be followed. Eligibility requirements vary from program to program.

“Kandiyohi County and the State of Minnesota are working closely together to provide financial and health care support 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 Benefits and medical assistance.

“Even though people may not know whether they’re eligible or not, they’re applying,” said Deb Grunwald, county HHS supervisor.

So far this year, the county has received 409 applicants, up from 221 in 2021. That’s an 85% increase on the year. Grunwald thinks there may be at least two reasons for the increases, although there could be more.

The first possible cause is the state’s new online application portal called MNBenefits. It was launched in March and makes it easier for people to seek help online. Candidates can also apply for several different programs at once.

“It’s smartphone compatible,” Grunwald said, making it more accessible for those who have a smartphone but no computer.

The second reason for the spike in applications this year could be changes to SNAP income guidelines. To be eligible for SNAP, a household can now meet 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, an increase of 165%. In Kandiyohi County, that would be $55,500 for a family of 4. Previously it was $45,837.

“It makes more people eligible for the programs,” Grunwald said.

There has also been an increase in requests for emergency aid. During the past two years of the pandemic, many nonprofits such as United Community Action Partnership and the Salvation Army had additional resources available to people in times of financial emergency. Since most of these resources have now expired, residents are looking to the county for help.

“We’re seeing people coming back to get help for emergency relief, for evictions or shutting down their utilities,” Grunwald said.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on financial programs. Many waivers have been put in place to make it easier for people to receive and retain benefits while the major impacts of the pandemic are felt.

However, many of those waivers have expired, and some others for programs such as Medical Assistance and SNAP may soon be removed. The main concern is that people who benefited from these waivers will soon have their benefits reduced or terminated because they are no longer eligible.

“The federal government has indicated that they will give us 60 days notice when this happens, when they lift these waivers,” Grunwald said. “We’re a bit worried about what it will look like.”

With the increase in applications, staff at Kandiyohi County have seen their workload increase. The state requires that all requests for assistance be processed within 30 days. There are also cases where an application is expedited and must be made within 24 hours.

“Our eligibility staff work very hard to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity and respect and that each case is handled according to guidelines,” Grunwald said.

The county is serious about the integrity of the program.

Staff perform internal reviews of reports to ensure there are no errors, and additional training and support is provided as needed. Kandiyohi County has an in-house fraud investigator, which makes it easier to investigate allegations of fraud when they arise. The Minnesota Department of Social Services also conducts audits of county financial aid programs to make sure they are working properly.

Kandiyohi County just received its results for the SNAP program for the last fiscal year, and no errors were found.

“We are really proud of our staff, for working so hard during all these times,” Grunwald said.

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