Gov. Corbett, DPW move to mitigate food stamp cuts

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HARRISBURG -- Citing a desire to protect the state's neediest, Gov. Tom Corbett's administration said Wednesday it will provide additional heating assistance to undo food stamp cuts to Pennsylvania that were part of the federal farm bill signed last month.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare said the $8 million in supplemental federal energy assistance that the state will put toward "heat and eat" would preserve $300 million in food aid for up to 400,000 families statewide.

Those families would have otherwise seen their food stamp benefits decline by an average of $65 monthly had the state not acted. The cuts would have an immediate impact on the Pennsylvania economy, because food stamp money is spent quickly at groceries and retail stores.

Governors in Connecticut and New York also have acted to blunt the impact of the cuts, but Mr. Corbett is believed to be the first Republican governor to say he will do so.

Under the farm bill signed by President Barack Obama last month, families in 15 states faced the loss of the assistance due to the elimination of a provision known as "heat and eat" that allowed households receiving even a small amount of heating aid -- as little as a penny a year -- to receive a larger food stamp benefit.

"The name of the program is the whole gist of it," Kait Gillis, a DPW spokeswoman, said Wednesday. "You shouldn't have to choose between heating your house and feeding your family."

The federal government gives more in food stamp benefits to people if they also qualify for a state-administered heating assistance program.

To demonstrate eligibility for heating assistance, one must furnish a heating bill -- but many in lower-income brackets don't have heating bills, because utilities are built into their monthly rent.

So states have been leveraging that extra food stamp money by sending token amounts of heating assistance -- a penny a year, or a dollar a year, for example -- to food stamp beneficiaries, so they can claim the assistance, and thus claim the extra food supplements.

But that loophole was "closed" in the new farm bill, which now says people get the extra SNAP money only if they're receiving at least $20 a year in heating assistance. So if states want to preserve that extra food stamp cash, they now will have to spend more on per-family heating assistance than they had in previous years.

Food banks and hunger advocacy groups had called on Mr. Corbett to act to preserve the benefits, saying the deep cut would put serious pressure on already stressed charities.

Still, the move came as a surprise to some, who had not anticipated his administration would preserve the benefit.

"On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people who would've seen drastic cuts in food assistance, we thank Gov. Corbett for doing the right thing for Pennsylvania," said Julie Zaebst, policy center manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

"We knew that seniors would have been disproportionately impacted by the end of 'heat and eat,' so it's a relief to know that we can tell our elderly clients they won't have to worry about coping with a loss of $100 or more in their monthly SNAP benefits."

SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the formal name of the food stamp program.

Kate Giammarise: 717-787-4254 or or on Twitter @KateGiammarise. First Published March 5, 2014 3:39 PM

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