HARRISBURG - Pennsylvanians seeking food stamps may soon have to pass an asset test that state officials say will help ensure the program aids those who need it most, but advocates for the poor say it may hurt people who genuinely qualify for the federal benefit and are struggling to recover from the recession.
The asset test under consideration would meet the most stringent limits allowed by federal law - no more than $2,000 in savings for many households - as record numbers of people seek help paying for food and states increasingly relax barriers to getting the benefit.
The state Department of Public Welfare relayed its plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a Dec. 28 letter obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer. However, a department spokeswoman disputed a report by the Inquirer that the agency plans to begin enforcing the asset test on May 1, and said nothing has been decided.
"Our main objective is to make sure there is integrity to the program so that we can make sure that those who are truly in need can receive the benefit," spokeswoman Carey Miller said Tuesday. "And at this point, we are discussing it with the federal government."
The department did not provide a copy of the letter to The Associated Press.
The asset test under consideration would bar anyone under 60 from receiving food stamps if they have more than $2,000 in savings or assets subject to the rule. The limit would be $3,250 for households with someone who is over 60 or disabled.
Houses and retirement savings would be exempt, but second cars with a value over $4,650 would count.
Currently, Pennsylvanians can get food stamps if they make 160 percent or less of the federal poverty level - or about $35,300 for a family of four - which puts it in the middle of the pack of states in generosity. But applicants in Pennsylvania who earn more than that may be able to qualify by deducting expenses for things like housing, medical treatment and child or dependent care.
Since the December 2007 official start of the recession, the number of enrollees in what is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has grown about 50 percent in Pennsylvania.
"This level of dependence is unsustainable over the long term," Gov. Tom Corbett's March budget proposal to the Legislature said.
Food stamps are designed to subsidize food purchases at grocery stores and supermarkets for the poor, and the federally funded benefit serves about 1.8 million in Pennsylvania. Benefits range in amount; the maximum for a family of four is $668 a month.
Miller said the department believes an asset test would eliminate the benefit for about 2 percent of food stamp recipients, which would reduce federal, but not necessarily state costs. The administration of then-Gov. Ed Rendell eliminated the asset test in 2008, saying that many recipients are already screened for other welfare programs and that doing so would encourage low-income households to save more.
But for a department that is under the gun to control costs in a wide array of social and human services, adding an asset test could create bigger workloads for caseworkers, erect more bureaucratic barriers and create longer waiting times for some applicants, critics said.
"SNAP benefits are federal funding, so it would not save any state funding," said Barry Ciccocioppo, a spokesman for the state House Democratic Appropriations Committee. "In fact, it's going to increase the burden on (department) caseworkers at county assistance offices."
Pennsylvania spent $160 million last year to help administer the program, while the federal cost to provide the benefit was about $2.5 billion.
Critics say the planned asset test will hurt seniors saving for a burial plot, the recently unemployed who lost jobs in the recession and the working poor who are trying to save enough money to escape poverty.
"Two thousand dollars is such a low amount," said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "Philosophically, it undermines this idea of self-sufficiency that this administration is so fond of. You are punished for saving. ... Everybody wants to see families that are self-sufficient."
The $2,000 asset limit has been in law since the 1980s, although states are not required to enforce it.
Thirty-five other states do not enforce an asset test, and some - like Pennsylvania - ended it during the recession. Four states have raised their minimum allowable assets to $5,000 or more, according to an analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Food Research and Action Center.