By Kathy Fisher, policy manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger
You may have seen in the news this week that Gov. Tom Wolf eliminated the so-called asset test, which prevented many Pennsylvanians from obtaining SNAP benefits (food stamps). Gov. Wolf promised in his campaign that he would do this, and his action brought an end to a seven-year debate regarding the merits of the asset test.
The recession that took hold in 2008 forced many struggling families to turn to SNAP for the first time. At that time Pennsylvania wisely followed the lead of 35 other states and the District of Columbia by eliminating its existing asset test. This prevented people with meaningful assets from receiving food stamps even though a growing number of people with some assets were affected by the economy. Pennsylvania resurrected the asset test in May, 2012, even though the state still had high rates of unemployment, limited job opportunities, and far too many Pennsylvanians struggling to feed themselves and their families.
The revived asset test required households to have less than $5,500 in assets ($9,000 for households with seniors or people with disabilities) to qualify for SNAP. The value of one vehicle per household was exempt, but any additional vehicle worth more than $4,650 counted as an asset. At the time, Department of Public Welfare (now Human Services) estimates revealed that 4,023 households with little to no income would lose SNAP benefits, and that a majority of these were seniors and people with disabilities. By disqualifying those households from SNAP, Pennsylvania stood to lose at least $12.5 million in federally funded benefits in 2012.
Many impacted individuals had recently lost jobs and were counting on assistance to help pay for their mortgage and other basics to maintain some stability in their lives while they looked for work.
In addition, administration of the test created a costly and time-consuming ripple effect. County Assistance Office staff, already overwhelmed and struggling to provide the most basic services to their clients, had to process paperwork for hundreds of thousands of households receiving SNAP that were now required to verify their assets. This added red tape made it more difficult for eligible families to receive SNAP and increased the risk of federal penalties that could result from high error rates.
Advocates vigorously argued that the social and economic costs of an asset test, both to individuals and to Pennsylvania’s economy, are too high. Families with modest assets need SNAP to get back on their feet and to help avoid long-term devastating consequences. Seniors living on limited incomes should not be forced to forego a small SNAP grant that helps them make ends meet simply because they were wise enough to save for unexpected medical costs and home repairs. Pennsylvania grocery stores and small businesses should not lose out on federal SNAP dollars that help support local economies.
Finally, our voices have been heard, and our efforts have paid off – in the form of SNAP dollars that will help thousands of families and individuals put food on the table.