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PA policy change aims to limit food stamp eligibility

By   /   January 10, 2012  /   4 Comments

Could put more pressure on food banks, charities
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — After a 50 percent increase in the number of Pennsylvania residents eligible for food stamp assistance in the past five years, the state Department of Public Welfare plans to restore stricter eligibility limits for some families.

The changes to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — better known as food stamps — are among the strictest in the nation and mark a return to a policy the department abandoned in 2008.
The Public Welfare Department, which administers the program, said the policy changes will ensure that benefits go only to those households in the greatest need.
But opponents warn that the policy will hurt some needy families and could force more individuals to seek private food donations, which are stretched thin.
The department’s new asset test will disqualify households with more than $2,000 in “countable resources” from receiving food stamps. The department estimates that the changes could affect 2 percent of the 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps, but the amount of savings is not known.
“With state and federal funding being so tight right now, we want to make sure that those who have the absolute most need are receiving benefits,” said department spokeswoman Anne Bale.
Existing income eligibility guidelines will not be affected, said Bale. Families of four with a monthly income of less than $3,000 are eligible for up to $668 per month.
But the new test may disqualify some households receiving state assistance. Countable resources will include cash-on-hand, bank account assets, lump sum payments, stocks, bonds and trust funds.
Personal vehicles like cars and boats will be counted, too. The first vehicle in a household will be exempt, and additional ones will count if valued at more than $4,650 each.
Houses and retirement savings will be exempt. 
Those who work with the state’s poor questioned why the state was setting a threshold for recipients.
Michael Tukeva, executive director of the Pocono Alliance, which fights poverty and hunger in Monroe County, said the new policy would hurt those who are just above the $2,000 threshold but not making enough to survive on their own.
“What if you have $2,001 in assets? This is just a slap in the face if $1 can affect who can get benefits,” Tukeva said.
Bale said the policy change was made, in part, because of complaints from taxpayers about food stamp recipients who are abusing the system.
Tukeva said the response was not warranted, even if there have been some complaints.
“There are always going to be some people who abuse the system, but that is a mindset that we have to correct, not just cut them off,” he said.
If those families are pushed off food stamps, it will place a heavier burden on private assistance, he said.
Those concerns were echoed statewide, even in Chester County, which ranks first in the state for per capita income.
At the Chester County Food Bank, which provides meals, fresh produce and nonperishable goods to about 70,000 people in the county, demand for assistance has increased by about 50 percent in the past year alone, said Larry Welsch, the food bank’s executive director.
“I think our worry is that there will be more folks who will not be able to access food stamps. That will create a much heavier demand for our donated food supplies,” Welsch said.
Bale said the department used the asset test until 2008, so this marks a return to a previous policy.
Statistics show that a sizable portion of the state’s residents who receive food stamps were not getting those benefits in 2008 or before.
Since 2006 — as a result of the economic downturn and the lack of the asset test, Bale said — food stamp usage in Pennsylvania has increased by more than 50 percent, from 1.12 million eligible households to more than 1.72 million, according to the Public Welfare Department.
Nationally, there has been a similar trend. 
At the same time the rolls expanded, the amount of the benefits has increased from $266 per month for an average household in October 2008 to $289 in October 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Qualifying for food stamps in Pennsylvania and nationwide has become easier, because policy changes in the past decade allow anyone who receives welfare cash assistance or supplemental Social Security payments to receive food stamps without the typical income restrictions.
Tad DeHaven, a budget analyst with the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., said the federal expansion of food stamp eligibility was not helping the truly needy.
“The federal system is not effective and there are better ways of taking care of those in need,” DeHaven told the PA Independent.  “It’s not simply a matter of increasing rolls and dollars, the bigger question is whether those are best targeted.”
DeHaven said government-run assistance programs can crowd out resources that otherwise could be used for private charities.
This year, the total budget for the state Department of Public Welfare is more than $27 billion, including more than $10 billion from state taxpayers. The remaining funds, including the majority of funding for food stamps, come from the federal government.
Dave Langford, divisional social services director for the The Salvation Army of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, said the state might have to place some controls on the food stamp program, but the $2,000 asset limit was too low.
“If the poor can’t build up some assets, they are just going to remain poor, so a limit on assets seems counterproductive,” Langford said.