Pa.'s food stamp asset test will be easier than planned
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The state said Wednesday that it is easing limits of an asset test it plans to reinstate for Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps.
A total of 4,000 households are expected to lose their food stamps under the revised proposal by the state Department of Public Welfare.
The plan sparked criticism from Democrats and advocates for the poor when it became public last month.
Older people and the disabled with more than $9,000 in assets would no longer qualify for food stamps under a plan submitted Wednesday to federal officials. Those under age 60 would be disqualified if they have more than $5,500 in assets.
Under the asset test, savings and checking accounts, cash, stocks, bonds and additional vehicles would count toward the limit. The asset test would exclude a person's home and the surrounding land, household goods, burial plots, life insurance and pension plans and a primary vehicle, among other assets.
The Corbett administration initially proposed a limit of $2,000 for a household and $3,250 for a household with an elderly or disabled individual.
But Anne Bale, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, said state and federal officials agreed the asset limits should be raised to account for inflation and the cost of living.
The asset test, which was dropped in 2008 amid the recession, would take effect May 1.
Under the revised guidelines, the state DPW estimates 1,448 households of people younger than 60 and 2,575 households of disabled people and people 60 and older will lose their food stamps. Across the state, 1.8 million households receive food stamps.
Food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Individual states share the cost of administering the program and are permitted to apply asset tests, as long as the minimum amount of assets is set no lower than $2,000.
In Pennsylvania, people can access SNAP if they make 160 percent of the federal poverty level or less. For a family of four, the poverty level is $22,350.
In late December, the administration notified federal officials that it planned to reinstate the asset test at the levels effective in 2008 -- a limit of $2,000 for a household and $3,250 for a household with an elderly or disabled individual.
"We felt it was important to reinstate the asset test to ensure only those most in need are accessing this taxpayer-funded program," said Ms. Bale.
State Democrats have spoken against reinstating an asset test, with former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, returning to the Capitol last week to say the proposal was unnecessary and would burden caseworkers.
On Wednesday, state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster County, the Democratic policy chairman, said examining the assets of all Pennsylvanians who receive food stamps would be a prohibitive obstacle.
"Even if you're talking an hour a person, you're talking about 1.8 million hours of work to be done," he said. "This is a bureaucratic nightmare."
Mr. Sturla said the proposal would discourage poor people from saving.
Karen Naeser, 63, of Richmond in Tioga County, said her assets surpass the level that would disqualify her from food stamps. Ms. Naeser, who is disabled, began receiving food stamps this summer after losing her job as a receptionsist at a personal care home. She said she has more than $9,000 in stocks and uses her savings to pay her taxes.
"I'm going to have to dip into the money, and then after it's gone, what am I supposed to do?" she said. "What am I supposed to do when something happens to the furniture, the hot water heater?"
A director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh organization that addresses poverty and hunger in Allegheny County, said the proposal would make it harder for poor people to weather such unexpected bills.
"The kinds of emergencies middle-class people use their savings on make poor people destitute," said Ken Regal, co-director of the organization. "What the asset test fundamentally says to poor people is unless you're risking destitution, we don't believe you really need help."
First Published February 2, 2012 12:00 am