By Michael Froehlich

and Julie Zaebst

Last month, Hurricane Irene roared through Philadelphia, flooding basements and knocking out power to thousands of local residents. A week later, Tropical Storm Lee caused more damage. And last week, the aftermath of the storms brought attention to a different kind of disaster - a man-made one blowing out of Harrisburg.

Low-income Pennsylvania families are eligible for a small amount of food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits) to replace food lost because of a storm. Families have a limited number of days to claim these food stamps. But when families applied for those benefits at local welfare offices, they faced chaos and waits of more than three hours. Worse, they were given little information on eligibility and requirements.

In a lengthening recession, the state Department of Public Welfare is being called on to provide critical basic services to more Pennsylvanians with less staff. Since 2002, the number of workers at the department has dropped by 13 percent. At the same time, caseloads have nearly doubled, with each worker now handling an average of 472 food stamp and Medicaid cases.

Hardworking county welfare staffs can't keep up with the growing workload. This year's state budget included another $56 million in cuts to welfare department operations and welfare-to-work services.

Meanwhile, waits of more than two or three hours have become common at welfare offices. Phone lines are jammed, and messages often go unreturned. Several years ago, the Philadelphia office set up a customer service center to handle inquiries from clients. Today, fewer than one in five calls to the center is picked up.

In addition, the welfare office now rejects more than a third of applications for food stamps. Nearly half of the rejections are because the welfare office believes an applicant has failed to provide documentation or make an appointment. In our experience assisting welfare recipients, however, these rejections can often be attributed to documents misplaced by overwhelmed skeleton crews or to ineffectual "phone tag" between officials and applicants with busy work, child-care, and school schedules.

The system is collapsing under the weight of an increasing workload, with fewer workers to handle it and a state government oblivious to the impact.

When low-income families must spend entire days at a welfare office waiting to see a caseworker or return several times to turn in the same piece of paper, it's time they're not spending at work, looking for work, going to school, or tending to their children.

Continuous cuts to the Department of Public Welfare have undone essential government functions. Welfare caseworkers are doing the best they can, but, as we saw last week, they are completely overwhelmed. The greatest consequences are to those who can least afford them.

Michael Froehlich is an attorney with Community Legal Services. Julie Zaebst is policy center manager at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.