In PA – SNAP Asset Test Decision, We're All Losers

My first job out of college was as the West Philadelphia Site Coordinator of LIFT, a college student-driven social service one-stop organization. Our student volunteers connected area residents to a variety of services, including applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps.  SNAP is an invaluable service to low-income families, providing funds that can only be used for food while freeing up the household’s resources to cover other necessities. Unfortunately, SNAP benefits have traditionally been underutilized; while approximately 460,000 of Philadelphia residents (about ¼ of the city’s population) receive SNAP benefits, estimates suggest that about 180,000 additional residents are eligible but not receiving benefits.  This shortfall can be attributed to a number of reasons, including individuals’ fear of stigmatization from participation in a social welfare program; difficulty jumping through the bureaucratic hoops of completing an application; and a reluctance to share a large amount of private information with strangers.  In previous work experiences and on our CARIE LINE, I have seen seemingly SNAP-eligible individuals decline to apply based on these and other reasons. In 2008, Pennsylvania removed asset limits from SNAP eligibility determinations, a decision that grew the pool of eligible households and eliminated a significant piece of red tape from the application process.  At the time, the move was seen as prudent action in light of the growing economic downturn as economic insecurity become a reality for households who would have previously thought it unfathomable.  This made it all the more troubling when I learned last week in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the state would be reinstituting the asset test, with limits of $2,000 and $3,250 for non-seniors and seniors, respectively.  For seniors with low enough incomes to qualify for SNAP, $3,250 hardly provides the safety net that it might seem to at first glance, especially when one considers that those asset limits remain unchanged since 1980.  Compared to their higher-income contemporaries, Seniors who qualify for SNAP are more likely to be vulnerable to growing medical costs, lacking the income to purchase supplemental medical coverage and unlikely to have employer-provided health coverage as part of a retirement benefits package. With Pennsylvanians still hurting in the economic downturn, adding additional hurdles to the SNAP application process seems misguided with the already significant level of underuse of the program in Philadelphia and statewide.  SNAP benefits are entirely funded by federal dollars (with the state providing small portion of the administrative expenses, which will likely be increased by the requirement of additional documentation for review), making Pennsylvania’s decision to become one of only 15 states with a SNAP asset test that much more of a head scratcher.  The only likely financial impact for the state from the 2% of Pennsylvania SNAP recipients declined benefits as a result of the change would seem to be a ripple effect of subsequent losses in revenues for businesses that accept SNAP benefits, as well as the utility companies, lenders, landlords, and other businesses whom former recipients may need to delay payments to or fail to make payments to entirely.  With no clamor for such a policy change beyond those believing the old racially coded canard of “welfare queens driving Cadillacs” and no apparent beneficiaries (other than, perhaps, predatory payday lenders eager to take advantage of a new pool of financially squeezed potential customers), the Corbett Administrations seems to have accomplished the rare “lose-lose” policymaking. With the policy not currently scheduled to go into effect until May, there is still time to speak out against it.  CARIE will be posting more information soon on its website and the Coalition Against Hunger has posted additional information about advocating against this change. CARIE understands that applying for SNAP may feel like a daunting process for you or your loved ones, and we are proud to be able to assist you with the process.  We can help callers on our CARIE LINE with completing the application over the phone, help individuals complete an application in our center city office, or we can help you locate organizations in your area that can give you an in-person appointment to go through the application.  Call us at (215) 545-5728 or 1-800-356-3606 for more information and help. Written by Paul Vande Stouwe, CARIE MSW Intern

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