Corbett raises limit on assets for food stamps, but critics blast the idea of a test

DPW Secretary Gary Alexander said reinstating the asset test "is an important first step toward preserving limited taxpayer resources for the truly needy."
DPW Secretary Gary Alexander said reinstating the asset test "is an important first step toward preserving limited taxpayer resources for the truly needy."
Posted: February 02, 2012

Modifying its original proposal, the Corbett administration is raising the amount of assets a person can have to retain food stamps, drawing the ire of critics who say the asset test itself is improper.

The state Department of Public Welfare on Wednesday announced that households with people under age 60 will be limited to $5,500 in assets. For households with people 60 and above, the figure is $9,000.

Houses, retirement benefits, and one car would not be counted as assets. Any additional vehicle worth more than $4,650 would be counted.

Asset testing will begin May 1.

In December, the DPW sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food-stamp program, asserting that it would institute an asset limit of $2,000 for people under 60 and $3,250 for those who are older.

After The Inquirer reported on the letter, newspapers, the Internet, and other media erupted with outrage. Mayor Nutter assailed asset testing as "asinine" and Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, criticized the asset test as a costly policy that would not save the commonwealth any money.

DPW spokeswoman Anne Bale said Wednesday that the asset-limit increase had nothing to do with the storm of protest her agency and the governor encountered.

"We made the adjustment because of inflation and the cost of living," Bale said, adding that the administration consulted with the USDA before making the change in the food-stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Pennsylvania had an asset test as recently as 2008, then scrapped it. It was deemed unfair both to seniors who were saving for their burials, and to the newly unemployed who may have had modest bank accounts but were being ravaged by the recession.

Reinstating the asset test, DPW Secretary Gary Alexander said in a statement Wednesday, "is an important first step toward preserving limited taxpayer resources for the truly needy. The asset test ensures every public dollar we have goes directly to those who need it most."

The administration has said the test is vital to weeding out waste, fraud, and abuse, although it acknowledges that rates of fraud are low in the Pennsylvania SNAP program, which the USDA lauds as well-run.

Under federal law, the DPW has the right to administer an asset test.

Regardless of how high the asset level is, the test is unnecessary and harmful, critics of asset testing charge.

"It's like saying that an innocent man who was serving 20 years in prison is now serving 10," said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the hunger-relief agency. "It's not as bad, but it certainly doesn't mean it's right."

Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Nutter, said simply, "You can't put lipstick on a pig. Asset testing . . . is a bad idea."

Asset testing has been rejected by 70 percent of the states. Critics point out that it has been opposed both by Democrats, who say it hurts the poor, and by Republicans, who say it penalizes those who save. New Jersey and Delaware do not have asset testing.

Louise Hayes, an attorney with Community Legal Services and a SNAP expert, said Wednesday that few SNAP recipients have assets equal to the new test levels. That means few people will end up being disqualified from the program because of money they have in the bank, she said.

But a group of already overworked and understaffed caseworkers will now have to review bank statements and other assets for SNAP recipients, Hayes said in a statement.

"This additional workload will make things dramatically worse, resulting in eligible seniors and families losing their benefits" due to bottlenecks and staff errors, Hayes wrote.

In an interview, Hayes added that the second-car rule is "immensely complicated" and that asking state workers to assess car values will be a major headache resulting in delays that will cause people who suffer from hunger to lose benefits to which they are entitled.

Hayes concluded, "Why spend state dollars on all this new red tape, just to turn away federal money?" (All SNAP benefits are federal.)

Union officials who represent caseworkers agreed with Hayes, saying the major cost to the state will be reflected in the extra hours workers will need to administer asset tests.

Bale disagreed, saying many caseworkers currently administer asset tests for other programs, such as cash welfare. But the 200,000 statewide welfare recipients are a fraction of the 1.8 million SNAP recipients, advocates said.

The Corbett administration has been asked several times how many asset tests it conducts as well as what the cost of administering asset tests for SNAP benefits will be.

Bale said again Wednesday that she was unable to provide the figures. DPW estimates that 1,448 Pennsylvania households with people under 60 receiving SNAP benefits have resources above $5,500 and that there are 2,575 such households of the elderly and disabled with more than $9,000. Throughout the state about 880,000 households get SNAP benefits.

Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, criticized the administration as having a lack of transparency in its decision-making process.

She added, "An asset test is a complete waste of Pennsylvania taxpayers' money at a time when our state can't afford to squander any of its resources."

Alexander had a different view: "This is an important reform that ensures individuals use the personal resources available to them before accessing limited public funds and benefits financed by taxes."


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

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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