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Food stamp asset test will begin on Tuesday

It will be about six months until the state will know how many people lost benefits.

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania Public Welfare Department will start asking food-stamp recipients next week to prove they do not have significant personal assets in order to qualify for benefits.

Advocates for the poor say the new policy will be expensive to administer and hurt families for whom the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program can be a lifeline. It goes into effect Tuesday, but it will be about six months before the department knows how many have lost benefits.

"The majority who will lose benefits - the significant majority - are seniors and people with disabilities," Julie Zaebst, policy center manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said Friday. "In our experience, many of those folks are saving for medical expenses and funeral expenses."

The asset test is designed to prevent food stamps from going to anyone under 60 with certain assets worth more than $5,500. The threshold climbs to $9,000 for those 60 and older. The rules pertain to cash, stocks, and bonds, but not to pension plans, retirement accounts, home values, or life insurance.

About 1.8 million Pennsylvanians in 880,000 households currently receive food stamps, and Public Welfare spokeswoman Carey Miller said the new rules are projected to affect less than 1 percent of them. The typical recipient gets $35 a week in food stamps, and the maximum monthly benefit for a family of four is $668.

The rules are "a way for us to ensure that individuals who have readily available resources will first deplete that before relying solely on public assistance," Miller said. "This is our way of trying to preserve the benefit for those who have no additional means or resources."

Miller said that agency employees were sent a memo outlining the policy and their duties, but that the transition was expected to be aided by the fact that many recipients already get other benefits for which an asset test was already in place.

"At this time, the welfare offices are significantly understaffed and burdened by paperwork," Zaebst said. "So we definitely have concerns about anything that would add red tape."

Officials have estimated that about 4,000 families would be affected.

Zaebst noted the money was coming from the federal government, so cutting people off the rolls will not help the state's budget picture.

"So that money's going to essentially sit in D.C. rather than flowing into the commonwealth once this policy goes into effect," Zaebst said.

The gross monthly income limit for a family of four to qualify is $2,890, or $3,726 for households that include elderly or disabled people.