U.S. agriculture secretary critical of Pa. plan to tie food stamps to assets

Tom Vilsack , U.S. agriculture secretary, in City Hall with U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and Mayor Nutter (right) at his sides.
Tom Vilsack , U.S. agriculture secretary, in City Hall with U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and Mayor Nutter (right) at his sides. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 27, 2012

The federal official in charge of the U.S. food stamp program said Thursday that Pennsylvania's plan to tie food-stamp benefits to people's assets will save the state nothing and create more problems than it solves.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in Philadelphia to discuss President Obama's State of the Union message, said the asset test "is not going to save the commonwealth a single dime," and would, in fact, cost the state money to implement.

Mayor Nutter, at a City Hall news conference with Vilsack, was more pointed.

"This is one of the most mean-spirited, asinine proposals to come out of Harrisburg in decades," he said. "I literally cannot understand what problem they are trying to solve."

And to complete the triumvirate of Democrats denouncing the plan, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.) called it "the dumbest thing I've ever heard of."

The asset test, as described by the Department of Public Welfare, would deny food stamps to senior citizens with $3,250 or more in savings and assets. For people under 60, the figure is $2,000.

Houses and retirement benefits would be exempt from counting as assets. If a person owns a car, that vehicle also would be exempt, but any additional vehicle worth more than $4,650 would be considered a countable asset.

Responding to Vilsack's remarks, Kevin Harley, Gov. Corbett's spokesman, said: "It doesn't surprise me that the man whose president has overseen the greatest increase in food-stamp usage in the history of the United States would be critical of any Republican governor attempting to impose an asset test. Because of President Obama's economic policies, 11.2 million additional Americans have been added to the food-stamp rolls."

Antihunger advocates have said that the number of food-stamp recipients increased because the recession threw people into poverty.

Disputing Vilsack, Harley said it would not cost additional money to administer the program. Union officials who represent the caseworkers who would administer asset tests have said that costs would shoot up.

"The union people are wrong," Harley said.

And although the DPW has set the limit on assets, those may be subject to change, Harley indicated. "The governor has not yet determined the level," he said. It is a sign that Corbett may not agree with the initial DPW plan and may consider raising the limit, antihunger advocates said Thursday.

The Corbett administration has said that the test would cut down on waste, fraud, and abuse in the federally funded food-stamp program.

Records show that the rate of fraud in Pennsylvania's food-stamp program is one-tenth of 1 percent, one of the lowest in the nation.

About 30 percent of people eligible for food stamps in Pennsylvania and the nation do not access them, making the entitlement program undersubscribed.

Vilsack met in City Hall with local antihunger advocates who expressed their opposition to the asset test for the food-stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

"Do we really want to reduce access [to SNAP benefits] for senior citizens?" Vilsack asked. He also wondered whether the asset test, rejected by 70 percent of U.S. states, would discourage saving among the poor and working class.

Vilsack said that most SNAP recipients "play by the rules," and that 75 percent of people who get SNAP benefits are senior citizens on low, fixed incomes, as well as children and people with disabilities. Only 8 percent of SNAP recipients receive cash welfare, he said.

SNAP is an "economic extender," creating jobs in the grocery and food industry, Vilsack said, asserting that each SNAP dollar generates $1.80 to $1.90 in economic activity.

Though he appeared to disagree with the DPW decision to implement an asset test, Vilsack pointed out that the state has the right to do so under federal law. He did suggest that the state "might want to rethink" its position.

The DPW surprised state and federal legislators, as well as antihunger advocates, with its plan to reinstate such a test in Pennsylvania.

The decision was laid out in a December letter from the DPW to the USDA. The news of the letter, first reported by The Inquirer earlier this month, rippled through the Internet, as pundits, politicians, and taxpayers weighed in.

On Wednesday, former Gov. Ed Rendell called on Corbett to abandon the asset test. "Do we want to take away benefits to root out waste, fraud, and abuse that doesn't exist?" Rendell said.

Harley said Thursday that Rendell, Nutter, Brady, and "the other Democratic politicians are reading from President Obama's talking points. This is about politics, not about policy for them."

State Sen. Shirley Kitchen (D., Phila.) called the test "a disgrace," adding that she "would like to see the numbers detailing the actual amount of so-called fraud and waste."


Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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