Instead of encouraging the working poor to save, Pennsylvania welfare officials want to punish families for having a few dollars in a bank account.
Beginning May 1, the state plans to make any food stamps the needy receive contingent on their assets. Anyone under 60 with more than $2,000 in savings and other assets will no longer be eligible. For people over 60, the limit would be $3,250. Houses, retirement benefits, and a single vehicle won’t be counted as assets.
The new formula means recipients must be virtually destitute to qualify for food assistance. Emptying their bank accounts will only further impoverish families that are already struggling.
The rule change could affect as many as 464,000 Philadelphians currently eligible for food stamps, according to city Controller Alan Butkovitz. Almost 30 percent of city residents rely on food stamps for basic survival. Businesses and grocery stores that depend on purchases by food stamp recipients could be hurt, too.
Statewide, about 2 percent of the 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps would be affected by the asset test. The new rule will put Pennsylvania out of sync with the 35 states, including New Jersey, that have abolished asset limits in acknowledgment of today’s poor economy. A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare said the asset test is a way to ensure that “people with resources are not taking advantage of the food stamp program.” But she offered no evidence of a problem so widespread that it required this drastic response. In fact, Pennsylvania has one of the lowest food stamp fraud rates in the nation — a tenth of 1 percent.
Pennsylvania receives about $2.5 billion in federal funds through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The state also pays about $160 million annually to maintain the food stamp program. The state scrapped the asset test in 2008 under the Rendell administration because it was hurting senior citizens who had meager savings. There is no good reason to bring it back now. In this economy, state government shouldn’t be making it harder for people who need help to get it.