2012-03-22 / Church News

Critics Pan Planned Food-stamp Asset Test

By Peter Jackson

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – A Corbett administration plan to require an asset test for food-stamp recipients drew sharp criticism Thursday as advocates for the poor, the elderly and food merchants warned it would harm thousands of Pennsylvanians at the margins of society and reduce federal dollars flowing to the state.

The change, which does not require legislation, takes effect May 1. It would bar households with eligible assets of more than $5,500, and $9,000 for those with an elderly or disabled member, from receiving the federally paid food stamps.

“There just doesn't seem to be a good reason for it,” said Louise Hayes, an attorney with Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services.

She was the first of more than a dozen people who testified before the House Human Services Committee at the only public hearing scheduled on the plan. Opponents also delivered to Gov. Tom Corbett's office a petition opposing the change that was signed by more than 10,000 people, along with a CD containing a video appeal to Corbett from 87-year- old Miriam Boss, the Philadelphia woman who initiated the online petition drive.

“When I first retired, I was comfortable,” Boss says in the video. “Now I'm uncomfortable. I've been falling. I've been put in the hospital. I've been given rehab. And it was the conclusion that I just didn't have the energy because I wasn't eating properly.”

Assets subject to the test include cash, checking and savings accounts, stocks, bonds, personal property, boats and all-terrain vehicles. Exempt assets include a car and home, life insurance and pensions, family savings accounts, clothing, jewelry, household goods and burial plots.

Pennsylvania currently has no asset test to receive food stamps, but has an income limit. A family of four, for example, qualifies only if its income is less than $ 35,300. Overall, about 880,000 Pennsylvania households, or 1.8 million people, receive food stamps each month. Food-stamp benefits vary according to an income based formula, but the average benefit is $270 a month, Hayes said.

The Department of Public Welfare estimates about 4,000 food- stamp households – mostly those with elderly or disabled people – have assets that exceed the limits. No department official attended the hearing, but afterward a spokeswoman defended the asset test.

“It will ensure that individuals first deplete all readily available resources before relying solely on public assistance and as a result, preserving the benefit for those who have no additional means or resources,” Carey Miller said. “Federal dollars or state dollars are still considered taxpayer dollars.”

Pennsylvania had a more restrictive food-stamp asset test until then-Gov. Ed Rendell eliminated it in 2008 following changes in federal law that allowed states to set their own asset rules. Currently, about three dozen states do not have an asset test.

The people who testified at the hearing said the change should be canceled or at least postponed until potential problems can be studied and resolved.

Julie Zaebst of the Philadelphia-based Coalition Against Hunger said the asset test would deprive Pennsylvania of the loss of at least $12.5 million a year in federal money and increase administrative costs, which are shared roughly evenly by the state and federal government.

Hayes said county assistance workers who process food-stamp applications are already seriously understaffed. She said the complex process of evaluating and documenting assets of an estimated 450,000 households subject to the new requirement would overwhelm those workers and multiply errors that prevent people from receiving services.

“They cannot do more and do it well,” Hayes said. “Re-imposing the asset test is a recipe for already terrible customer service to get still worse, and needy families and seniors to lose benefits for which they are eligible.”

David McCorkle, president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association and the Pennsylvania Convenience Store Council, said the proposal would hurt about 1,000 member companies that operate supermarkets, convenience stores and small grocers.

Echoing some other speakers, McCorkle also expressed concern about the proposed elimination of payments through the state General Assistance program and other spending cuts Corbett has proposed in his state budget plan.

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