Pennsylvania considering repeal of asset test used in food stamps

Critics say policy discourages saving to improve oneself

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HARRISBURG -- State officials are signaling they could repeal or revise a controversial asset test for food stamp recipients -- a measure instituted last year that barred thousands of families from receiving assistance, despite their low incomes.

"We have to look at the program itself," Carey Miller, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare, said last week. "Is it working? ... Is it benefiting the people that we serve?"

There is no timeline for any decision, Ms. Miller said.

Should DPW Secretary Beverly Mackereth decide there ought to be a change, the next step would be to talk to Gov. Tom Corbett, Ms. Miller said. The governor appears willing to consider rescinding the test.

"We would obviously look at what the secretary came up with," said Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Mr. Corbett.

The test was put in place in May 2012. The state had such a test previously but dropped in it 2008 in light of the recession, then later reinstalled it under then-DPW Secretary Gary Alexander. Nationally, states have generally been moving away from such measures, as they can discourage saving by people trying to climb out of poverty.

Ms. Mackereth became DPW secretary in June.

The test disqualifies applicants under age 60 who have more than $5,500 in assets and those who are disabled or over age 60 with more than $9,000 in assets.

In May, after the test had been in place for one full year, the Department of Public Welfare said about 4,000 households had been denied assistance or lost benefits due to the test.

Advocacy groups have argued the real impact of the test is much larger because it creates an additional barrier for all applicants in terms of providing documentation, and more paperwork for applicants and overburdened caseworkers.

"It is something we have certainly heard [concerns] about," said state Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, chairman of the House GOP Policy Committee, who is in the midst of an examination of various poverty-related programs.

"We'd certainly be interested in whatever recommendations [DPW] may have," he said.

"Most of the folks that had been denied benefits, it was based on paperwork that had not been processed correctly and not because they were ineligible because they had too many assets," he said, citing comments he has heard from groups he has met with around the state.

Advocacy groups that opposed the test from the beginning are hopeful it will be repealed.

"We think reimposing the asset test was a bad idea in the first place, and we're thrilled to hear that there's movement by the department towards going back to better policy on this," said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, an anti-hunger group based in Pittsburgh that helps people through the process of signing up for food stamps.

Clients will have fewer delays and be better served in getting assistance if the test is abolished, said Caryn Long, executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania, a statewide association of food banks.

Mr. Regal said he hoped the move could signal a broader change in the department's outlook on the safety net and its overall mission under new leadership.

"It's very encouraging to see that the new secretary is willing to be out front, saying, 'Some of the decisions of the previous secretary were bad decisions and we're going to change them,' " he said.

Just Harvest is hosting a meeting Wednesday with Ms. Mackereth, so she can hear directly from food stamp clients about problems such as dropped calls, long wait times and lost documents when applying for benefits.

Pennsylvania has about 1.8 million total food stamp recipients. People can access the program if they make 160 percent of the federal poverty level or less. Households with an elderly or disabled person can access the program at up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, the poverty level is $23,550.

Kate Giammarise:, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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