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A year later, Pa. food-stamp test called too complex

One year ago this week, Pennsylvania tied eligibility for food stamps to the assets people possess. Since then, nearly 4,000 households have lost or were denied benefits because they had too many financial resources, according to the Department of Public Welfare.

One year ago this week, Pennsylvania tied eligibility for food stamps to the assets people possess.

Since then, nearly 4,000 households have lost or were denied benefits because they had too many financial resources, according to the Department of Public Welfare.

In that same time, many more people - around 111,000 households - were denied benefits because they failed to provide proper documentation for the asset test.

Advocates for the poor now say that by weeding out a relatively small number of people with too many assets, the Department of Public Welfare made getting food stamps so complicated that deserving low-income people became inundated by paperwork and lost their benefits.

"The asset test adds unnecessary red tape to an already cumbersome process," said Julie Zaebst, interim executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "It's made it more difficult for eligible families and seniors to get help."

DPW spokeswoman Anne Bale said that the asset test succeeded in finding applicants with too much money.

Bale did not address specific questions on numbers and so-called red tape. Instead, she e-mailed a statement in which she encouraged advocates to "bring their concerns to us."

She encouraged anyone who had a problem with their benefits to discuss it with a caseworker.

Last summer, the department was able to deny 39 applications for food stamps because assets exceeded $100,000. She added that an additional 71 applications were denied during the same period because those households had assets of between $50,000 and $100,000.

Louise Hayes, a food-stamp expert with Community Legal Services, said the asset test had contributed to the "already overwhelming workload" of DPW caseworkers, whose inability to keep up with a raft of new paperwork is causing them to lose track of deserving low-income people, whose applications are then denied.

The advocates and the state disagree on that point.

DPW spokeswoman Bale said that much of the information taken in for food-stamp asset tests is already on file. Zaebst questioned Bale's assertion.

A total of 2,027 households had food stamps taken away because of excess resources, DPW figures show. An additional 1,923 households applying for food stamps for the first time were rejected because they had too much in assets.

The paperwork problem told a different story.

In the nine months before the asset test was implemented on May 1, 2012, 94,204 households had their applications for food stamps rejected for failing to provide proper paperwork, according to DPW figures analyzed by the Coalition.

In the nine months after the asset test began, 111,215 households had their applications rejected for insufficient paperwork, an increase of around 17,011, according to the analysis. Advocates believe that surplus represents people who are eligible for food stamps who might have lost their benefits because of the increased complexity of the asset test.

Overall, about 878,000 households in the commonwealth receive food stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

In addition, Zaebst said that in January 2013, caseworkers reviewed assets for around 93,000 SNAP applicants. Of those, 0.3 percent (282 households) were ineligible.

During the same month, of the 878,000 households receiving SNAP, 0.02 percent (203 households) were found to be ineligible because of high assets.

"For just a minuscule number of households with too many assets, we're seeing a waste of state money, and caseworker and client time," Zaebst said.

The asset test was implemented to root out waste, fraud, and abuse, although DPW acknowledges that rates of fraud are low in the Pennsylvania SNAP program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides SNAP money, has lauded the Pennsylvania program as well run.

The rules say that households with people under age 60 are limited to $5,500 in assets in order to qualify for SNAP. For households with people 60 and above or a person with a disability, the figure is $9,000.

Houses, retirement benefits, and one car are not counted as assets. Any additional vehicle worth more than $4,650 is counted.

Immediately, the asset test was polarizing.

Republicans praised it, saying they liked the idea of scrutinizing the financial backgrounds of people accepting federal money.

Conversely, Mayor Nutter called the asset test "mean-spirited."

And Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the asset test wouldn't save the state any money. It would, in fact, cost extra money to implement, he said, since DPW caseworkers would have to be retrained and would be spending more time asking applicants for extra documentation.

Bale denied that Thursday, saying that caseworkers collect that information anyway on applications for Medicaid.

"The information is already in the system," she said, "and lots of people on Medicaid get food stamps."

That's not true, countered Zaebst of the Coalition. "There are huge numbers of SNAP recipients who don't get Medicaid," she said. Zaebst added that what the state counts as an asset for Medicaid differs than what it seeks for the SNAP program.