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Pa. welfare secretary to reconsider asset test for food stamps

A Corbett administration official said she is "rethinking" the food-stamp asset test, a controversial measure that ties the federal benefits people receive to their bank accounts and car ownership.

A Corbett administration official said she is "rethinking" the food-stamp asset test, a controversial measure that ties the federal benefits people receive to their bank accounts and car ownership.

Department of Public Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth made the statement during a meeting with The Inquirer's editorial board Tuesday.

Her remark represents a potential sea change in how the administration views dealing with the poor, advocates say.

"We are thrilled," said Julie Zaebst, policy manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "I'm glad the administration is open to stepping back from an earlier decision."

Mackereth seemed to take pains to differentiate her views from those of her predecessor, Gary Alexander, on whose watch the asset test was created.

Alexander often said he was ferreting out "waste, fraud, and abuse" by using the asset test.

On Tuesday, Mackereth said: "My focus is not waste, fraud, and abuse. My primary focus is getting services to people who are entitled to them."

The test, begun in the spring of 2012, says that households with people under age 60 are limited to $5,500 in assets in order to qualify for food stamps, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). For households with people 60 and older, 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.

Alexander's emphasis on finding waste, fraud, and abuse was long a puzzle to advocates for the poor. The DPW has acknowledged that rates of food-stamp fraud in Pennsylvania are low. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds SNAP nationwide, has lauded the Pennsylvania program as being run well.

Alexander stepped down in February of this year, and Mackereth took over.

Some 1.8 million Pennsylvanians get SNAP benefits. Families of four are eligible to apply for SNAP if they make about $36,000 a year, a figure that is 160 percent of the federal poverty level.

While some look to find fraud in SNAP, advocates point out, the program is actually undersubscribed, meaning that 20 percent of people who are eligible for the benefit in the state don't apply for it.

In Pennsylvania, the asset test has had complications.

During the first year of the asset test, 4,000 households lost or were denied benefits because they had too many financial resources, according to DPW figures.

But during that same time, 111,000 households were denied benefits because they failed to provide proper documentation for the test.

Advocates said that by weeding out a relatively small number of people with too many assets, DPW made getting SNAP benefits so complicated that deserving low-income people became inundated by paperwork and lost their benefits.

"The asset test adds unnecessary red tape," Zaebst said.

DPW spokesmen have not addressed specific questions on red tape.

The state's search for fraud may have had unintended consequences.

Pennsylvania ranks among the slowest states in the nation for getting SNAP benefits to the needy within 30 days, as required by federal law, according to an Inquirer examination of USDA data last June. The USDA ordered the state to do better.

Advocates have said the asset test was one reason for the state's timeliness problems. State spokesmen have disagreed, without offering specifics.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last year wondered aloud why Pennsylvania would make it harder for state residents to access federal money.

He said the asset test would cost the state money to implement because DPW workers would have to be retrained and would be spending more time asking applicants for extra documentation.

That's one reason why, advocates say, about 70 percent of all states had rejected asset tests.

Union officials representing county workers have agreed that the asset test costs the state extra money because it takes extra time to administer. State spokesmen have said that's not true.

Mackereth said on Tuesday that part of what she'll do is determine where the truth lies.

During her meeting with the editorial board, she said more than once that she identifies with her friend Estelle Richman, head of DPW under Gov. Ed Rendell.

In an interview Tuesday night, Richman said she admired Mackereth, a former state legislator representing York County who also served as Human Services administrator in York County.

"She cares about making sure people are not hurt," said Richman, who is now retired. "When 111,000 people are without sufficient food [because of the asset test], that's inexcusable.

"When this secretary makes the statement that she is going to rethink the asset test, not only do I think she'll relook at it, I think she'll change it.

"The motto for DPW should be 'Do No Harm.' "