Corbett's cuts SNAP program

ASSOCIATED PRESS Gov. Corbett's administration has closed 4,641 food-stamp cases using a new assets test.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Gov. Corbett's administration has closed 4,641 food-stamp cases using a new assets test.
Posted: March 19, 2013

THE CORBETT administration policy of requiring asset tests for food stamps sounds a lot better than it actually is.

Put in place last May, it ostensibly preserves government resources for the neediest while insisting that those with their own resources use them.

Seem sensible?

In fact, it's a restrictive step, shunned by most states. It needlessly punishes already-struggling low-income citizens, and it won't save Pennsylvania money.

But it is consistent.

It falls somewhere between stripping basic health care from the working poor in 2011 (a court just ordered Gov. Corbett and the Legislature to restore it) and refusing a federally funded expansion of Medicaid in 2013.

It's part of overall governing that, so far, is cutting holes in safety nets.

Take food stamps, known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

It's federally funded, but the state pays half the administrative costs.

The average monthly benefit for eligible Pennsylvania households is $265.86 - about $66 a week.

There are 1.8 million Pennsylvanians on food stamps, 468,749 Philadelphians.

In 2012, it cost $2.8 billion statewide, $793 million in Philadelphia.

It cost more in five other states. Texas was tops at $4 billion.

Despite recession-related expansion, SNAP is well-run: 98 percent efficiency in benefits use, according to state and federal audits.

It has federal income restrictions. An individual can't net more than $931 a month; a family of four can't net more than $1,921 a month.

But what Pennsylvania did was add assets (savings) restrictions: $5,500 per household; $9,000 for those 60 or older or disabled.

The majority of states (35), including other large states such as California, Florida and Illinois, have no assets test.

Our neighboring states - New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, Delaware - have no assets test.

The only other state to recently impose one is Michigan, although Oklahoma is considering it.

To enforce new restrictions here, caseworkers review all assets of new applicants and current recipients, the latter on an annual basis.

Data provided to the Daily News by the Department of Public Welfare show 4,641 cases (households) rejected or closed from last June through last month.

The department couldn't say how much money the cuts will save, but the monthly average benefit multiplied by 4,641 for nine months is $11 million.

So roughly one-half of 1 percent of SNAP spending here is cut, but state administrative costs likely increased to make federal funding decrease.

"What it means is Pennsylvania is going without federal dollars that come into the state to feed needy people. It's not as though they went away. It shifts costs to family and local social services," says Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit working to fight hunger.

"Why let an asset test be the criteria?" she asks. "If they're low-income, they're struggling."

She and others say the test mostly punishes older or disabled recipients with some savings for medical needs.

And Julie Zaebst, of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, argues the efficiency question: "Every single person needs to document assets even if they have just $100 in a bank account, adding an enormous amount of paperwork for caseworkers to weed out a small percentage of people. . . . Is that efficient? It just doesn't seem a good use of already overburdened caseworkers' time."

The state acknowledges the test affects fewer than 1 percent of recipients.

A few questions:

Why does the most obese nation on the planet, and one of the wealthiest, have a hunger problem?

Why is Pennsylvania's stance on this issue at odds with most other states and all other states in our region?

And why do we seek to decrease government resources for health and hunger when government resources for salaries, perks and pensions for presidents, Congress, legislatures, foreign aid and foreign wars never decrease?

Some SNAP decisions make no sense.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: philly.com/BaerGrowls

Columns: philly.com/JohnBaer

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