Pa. gets 'slapped' by feds, improves feeding the poor

PA Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said improved technology, among other things, has helped the poor receive food stamps more quickly. (Avi Steinhardt/ For the Philadelphia Inquirer)

 Not long ago, Pennsylvania was among the slowest states in processing food stamps for the needy, compelling the federal government to demand that the commonwealth do better.

It has.

Ranked 47th on a list of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in fiscal year 2012, Pennsylvania improved to 19th in fiscal year 2015, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program.

A new governor, the termination of a controversial means test for benefits, and better technology have contributed to the improvement, advocates and others say.

Food stamps — now known as SNAP benefits, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — are to be processed within 30 days of a person’s application, USDA regulations stipulate.

The rate at which each state processes SNAP benefits in those 30 days is called timeliness.

In fiscal 2012, Pennsylvania’s timeliness rate was 75.78, meaning that the state got benefits to applicants within 30 days around 76 percent of the time — a poor performance.

Any state below 90 percent must devise a corrective action plan that brings its timeliness up to a desired 95 percent, according to USDA rules.

In fiscal 2015, Pennsylvania moved closer to hitting the mark, reaching a timeliness measure of 93.59 percent for the roughly two million low-income residents receiving SNAP benefits.

“The state got slapped and told to do better, which it did,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

Fisher said one of the main reasons for improvement was Gov. Wolf's repudiating and ending former Gov. Tom Corbett’s asset test.

The test, initiated by Corbett in 2012, tied SNAP benefits to people’s bank accounts and car ownership. Corbett saw the test as a way to cut down on fraud and waste.

During the gubernatorial campaign, Wolf called the asset test a policy “intended to hurt our most vulnerable residents.”

Advocates for the poor have said the asset test was a barrier for those struggling with hard times because it penalized the poor for saving money.

And the test added administrative burdens to caseworkers, which slowed the processing of SNAP applications for the states, advocates said.

“Getting rid of the test cut down on people waiting for benefits while they had to produce extra paperwork,” said Fisher, who added that the test never uncovered much waste or fraud, typically low in the SNAP program anyway.

In fact, said Ted Dallas, secretary of the Department of Human Services, the asset test was “very complicated and led to more errors, turning out to be very inaccurate.”

He added that Pennsylvania’s timeliness also improved because caseworkers were retrained and technology systems were enhanced.

Fisher said the previous administration’s emphasis on looking for fraud over helping people may also have been a drag on the timeliness process.

Dallas was careful not to criticize the Corbett administration when he added, “It doesn’t mean stopping fraud isn’t important, but we start with the perspective that, overall, people who ask for help really need help.”