Instead of helping people who have fallen on hard times, Pennsylvania made it harder for them to get food stamps, and hundreds of families may be going hungry at times as a result.
The state imposed an assets test to determine food-stamp eligibility a year ago. Since then, nearly 4,000 households have lost or been denied benefits after being deemed too wealthy. Another 111,000 households were rejected for failing to provide proper documentation for the test.
Advocates for the poor say the assets-appraisal formula being used by the state Department of Public Welfare does more harm than good. It goes so far as to ask applicants to estimate the value of their cemetery plots.
Under the new rules, applicants under 60 can have no more than $5,500 in assets and savings. The limit is $9,000 for applicants over 60 or with a disability. Houses, retirement income, and a single vehicle are not counted as assets.
The asset test was halted in 2008 by the Rendell administration. Gov. Corbett reinstated it, supposedly to root out fraud. But Pennsylvania has one of the lowest food-stamp fraud rates in the nation - a tenth of 1 percent. It seems like Corbett is trying to make points with fiscal conservatives at the expense of the poor.
State Sen. Pat Vance, chairwoman of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, said she does not understand why the state even needs a food-stamps asset test for what is primarily a federal program.
About 878,000 Pennsylvania households receive food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The federal government gives about $2.5 billion to maintain SNAP, and the state contributes about $160 million annually. The typical recipient gets $35 a week. The maximum monthly benefit for a family of four is $668.
The asset test has weeded out a very small number of people - 4,000 out of 1.8 million applicants. But given today's stricter eligibility rules for cash welfare payments, many of the applicants being denied food stamps are the working poor.
The asset test has also placed an additional paperwork burden on already overwhelmed state caseworkers. Louise Hayes, a food-stamp expert with Community Legal Services, said the test has caused DPW caseworkers to lose track of deserving low-income people, whose applications are then denied.
Nine months before the asset test took effect, 94,204 households were denied food stamps for failing to provide proper paperwork, according to an analysis by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. That number increased by more than 17,000 after the asset test began, most likely due to the complexity of the test, analysts said.
The test isn't worth its results. It has revealed that there are some people applying for food stamps who don't need them, but not so many that the poor should have to jump over an unnecessary hurdle to get help.