Proposed bill would bolster Pa. food-stamp asset test

Pa. Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth had said the asset test was under examination.
Pa. Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth had said the asset test was under examination. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: March 12, 2014

In October, the state's public-welfare secretary said she was "rethinking" the food-stamp asset test, a controversial measure tying federal benefits to people's bank accounts and car ownership.

Almost five months later, not only is the asset test unchanged, but two state senators are also proposing a bill that would augment it.

Pennsylvania is one of just 12 states to institute such a test, seen by advocates and academics as unnecessary red tape that stymies deserving people in accessing benefits.

Few people who apply for food stamps appear to have excess assets, figures show.

According to the latest Department of Public Welfare data obtained by The Inquirer, the agency rejected 224 of 81,021 new applicants for having too many assets in January - a rate of 0.28 percent.

Of the total of 878,000 households in the state receiving food stamps in January 2013, 0.02 percent (203 households) were found to be ineligible because of high assets, according to calculations by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

Because of such small numbers, "it's not good use of caseworker time or our clients' time" to administer asset tests, said Julie Zaebst, policy manager at the coalition. Most people asking for food stamps, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), have less than $100 in the bank, she said.

Defending the test, Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for the Welfare Department, said the measure is in place "to guarantee Pennsylvanians in need of assistance receive it." She added that the department uses the test "to ensure individuals receiving benefits are those who need it most."

Asked whether Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth was still "rethinking" the asset test, as she told the Inquirer Editorial Board in October, Gillis said, "We are constantly reevaluating our programs."

Across the United States, both Republicans and Democrats have voiced opposition to the tests, which they say discourage the poor from saving and punish low-income elderly for setting aside money for their burials.

Under the test, households with people under age 60 are limited to $5,500 in assets to qualify for food stamps. For households with older residents, or those with people with disabilities, the figure is $9,000.

Houses, retirement benefits, and one car are not counted as assets. Additional vehicles worth more than $4,650 are counted.

Nationwide studies show that asset tests find few people with too much money for SNAP.

Instead, the tests can slow and overwhelm caseworkers checking the backgrounds of SNAP applicants, said Stacy Dean, a vice president at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

This often results in people who deserve SNAP benefits not getting them, Dean said.

It's a significant problem in Pennsylvania. The state has been listed among the worst in the nation in getting food stamps to the needy within 30 days, as required by federal law, according to an Inquirer examination of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP.

Pennsylvania's decision to initiate an asset test in 2012, while the state was still feeling reverberations from the recession, "was really odd," said economist James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. "States were waiving asset tests after the recession" to help people who lost their jobs.

State officials have said asset tests are vital to detect fraud. But federal data show SNAP fraud is low.

Regardless, Republican State Sens. Joseph Scarnati of Jefferson County and David Argall of Schuylkill County plan to introduce a bill this week that would have the effect of bolstering the asset test to ferret out fraud.

The bill would deny benefits to SNAP and welfare applicants with cars worth $35,000 or more.It would prohibit lottery winners from getting benefits.

It also would charge people $100 if they lose their benefits cards twice in a year. This is a response to alleged scams to collect numerous cards.

Advocates say the legislation is misguided.

The idea that the poor drive $35,000 cars is an urban myth, said Louise Hayes of Community Legal Services. And federal law already prohibits lottery winners from getting benefits.

What's more, federal regulations prevent states from charging as much as $100 for lost benefit cards.

When told that the lost-card portion of the bill would not be legal, Scarnati spokesman Casey Long said, "We may look at amending the legislation."

While he hasn't publicly addressed the asset test recently, Corbett on Wednesday announced that he was preserving SNAP benefits for 400,000 Pennsylvania households facing $300 million in cuts annually.


alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

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