Annette John-Hall: Food-stamp crackdown is no way to celebrate Dr. King

Posted: January 17, 2012

Oh, the irony of it all.

On Monday, I tried to get someone in Harrisburg to explain why, in the name of all that's fair and just, low-income Pennsylvanians who have managed to build up modest savings are slated to have their food stamps - now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - cut off.

When I called the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, the office was closed - for the Martin Luther King holiday.

Say what?

It seems to me that if an agency is poised to put in place a policy that brings down the poor, it sure doesn't deserve to take a day off in recognition of a man who worked his entire life to lift them up.

As of May 1, Pennsylvanians under 60 with more than $2,000 will no longer be eligible for food stamps. For people over 60, the limit would be $3,250.

Talk about trying to turn Dr. King's dream into a nightmare.

The DPW's Anne Bale told my colleague Alfred Lubrano that the test was a way to assure "that people with resources are not taking advantage of the food-stamp program."

You would think, based on Bale's explanation, that scores of welfare queens are pillaging the commonwealth, using their SNAP cards to buy up every Cadillac in stock.

In truth, not only does Pennsylvania have one of the lowest food-stamp fraud rates in the nation, at one-tenth of 1 percent, the state was recently  recognized for running an efficient program.

If the DPW is so committed to "breaking the cycle of dependency," as its website trumpets, why would it punish folks who are trying to become self-sufficient by saving?

No safety net

It makes no sense to senior citizens like Irene, either. The divorced retiree (who doesn't want her last name used) suffers from a heart condition and depends on her $200 per-month food-stamp benefit to supplement her fixed income.

Sure, she's managed to sock away more than $3,000 in savings, but that money represents a hard-earned safety net she has saved up since she was 15.

"I have to pay my real estate taxes, which are $3,000, then my homeowner's [insurance], which is almost $800," the former commercial baker says. "Every time I go to the doctor, it's a $40 co-pay, and I have a $250 [specialist] co-pay, which I've been paying out for the past six months."

"It's a disgrace," Irene says of the asset test. "Every single woman I know is scraping by. How do they expect us to exist?"

Even though she qualified for food stamps, Irene says she was too embarrassed to apply at first because of the stigma associated with them. Even after her SNAP card came, she didn't use it for a month - "I was scared to death," she says.

Big misperception

Therein lies the misperception about food stamps, says Carey Morgan, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger's executive director. The automatic assumption is that people abuse SNAP, when the reality in Pennsylvania is that the program goes underutilized.

"The question that we have is, why does somebody have to become destitute before they ask for help?" says Morgan, adding that just one emergency room visit can wipe out any nest egg you've managed to save. "These are our mothers and fathers and grandparents. Essentially, the government is slamming the door in their faces. It's pretty un-American."

What has become the American way for some politicians is to paint a picture of food-stamp users as black - the underlying message being that African Americans are misusing the system and are undeserving of help.

Why else would Newt Gingrich call President Obama the "food stamp president" or Rick Santorum say that he "didn't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money"?

"There are probably some people who do abuse it. There's abuse in everything," Irene says. "But I think most people today - most seniors - really need it. We really need it."

Truth is, nationally whites outnumber blacks for food-stamp assistance.

But it doesn't matter whether you're white, black, brown or yellow. Suffering doesn't have a color.

That's what Dr. King would say.


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or on Twitter at Annettejh.

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