More on welfare reform: Who will be affected and why now?

Welfare programs in Pennsylvania are changing, in part due to cost-cutting measures from the Department of Public Welfare itself, and in part due to Act 22, an under-the-radar bill passed by the state General Assembly signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett June 30, 2011.

Asset limits

Part of DPW’s budget-slashing initiative, the asset limit will apply only to those receiving food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those who receive SNAP benefits will not be able to have more than $2,000 per household in assets, or $3,250 for households with disabled people and those over 60.

“It’s one more way we can make sure those who are most eligible are
receiving benefits,” DPW spokeswoman Anne Bale said. “Those who have means or assets can
hopefully use their resources to get back on their feet.”

But Mariana Chilton, researcher and Director of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger Free Communities, said that there are not enough ineligible people receiving benefits to warrant the measure, citing Pennsylvania’s low welfare fraud rate of less than one percent.

The $2,000 asset limit is the lowest allowed by federal law, making Pennsylvania’s requirement the most stringent allowed. To put it in perspective, in order to receive SNAP benefits, a person must make less than $1,444 per month, or $17,328 per year, and a single person can get a maximum of $200 in food stamps per month.

A full list of assets counted, per the DPW, is:

  • Cash on hand and in savings and checking accounts
  • Lump sum payments, including those from liquidated retirement plans
  • Funds withdrawn from educational accounts and used for other purposes
  • Stocks, bonds and saving certificates
  • Readily available money from trust accounts
  • Additional cars and homes (primary residences and cars are exempt)
  • Boats, aircrafts and all-terrain vehicles

The initiative will go into effect May 1, 2012.

Advocates say this only perpetuates the cycle of poverty. “It’s going to encourage
people not to open bank accounts,” Chilton said. “[Welfare] is supposed
to be a safety net to bounce you back up and become self-sufficient and
this is just going to make it so much more difficult for people to drive
themselves out of poverty.”

“It’s needlessly punitive,” City Controller Alan Butkovitz said. “People should be able to put away a few dollars
to get their car fixed up or get a suit to go to a job interview. There’s no real
purpose between having to choose between eating and putting away a
small amount of money for a rainy day.”

And, according to Chilton, the program will only end up costing taxpayers money. She said that a mere two to three percent of Pennsylvania welfare recipients have assets that even tap up against the limits and that the cost of screening each person will outweigh the money saved in retained benefits from the few that do have such assets. Furthermore, she speculated that, due to a woefully understaffed DPW, the department will likely have to hire more employees to complete the screening.

“Many of these issues are decisions made by taxpayers – we hear from them constantly,” Bale said, citing numerous phone calls asking the department to place more restrictions on and more closely monitor the eligibility of welfare recipients.

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Chilton responded. “There were overtones of racism and discrimination in those phone calls, if they were being received at all. They’re masking some kind of ideology coming out of the Department of Public Welfare with taxpayers’ concerns.”

“I’m not really sure what the agenda is, but I know that it couldn’t possibly be cost-cutting because the cost of hunger is $167.5 billion per year and Pennsylvania is in the top five states,” Chilton said.

Chilton said that, according to data she’s studied, for every dollar
spent on food stamps, $1.70 is circulated back into the economy because
people use them to support grocery stores, one of Pennsylvania’s largest
industries. “Food stamps are holding up our economy,” she said.

Butkovitz agreed that the motivation behind the measure is not limited to costs. “It’s a throwback to the old days when they had the poor laws and the
idea was if you were poor, you must have something morally wrong with you,” he said. “It reflects the opinion of extreme right, who happen to have power right now in the state and are flexing their muscles on the issue. I don’t think it’s reflective of
the majority opinion.”

Mandatory drug testing

As far as the drug-testing requirements, a random 20 percent of people who have committed a felony drug offense within the past five years and are receiving any kind of state assistance, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other cash assistance programs, as well as SNAP, will be tested every six months.

  • If a recipient fails a test, they will be referred to a drug treatment program. If they refuse to undergo treatment, their benefits will be suspended for six months. 
  • If they fail a second time, their benefits will be suspended for a year.
  • If they test positive a third time, they will be permanently banned from receiving benefits from the state of Pennsylvania.
  • There will be an appeal process for failed drug tests.

DPW is currently performing a six-month pilot program, which began Jan. 3rd, in Schuylkill County to decide how to best implement the drug testing plan statewide. ”

“Schuylkill County was chosen because, as a midsize county, the impact of the program will assist in determining a time frame and cost effectiveness of state wide implementation,” Bale said in an email yesterday. “The location has close proximity to Harrisburg, allowing for easier access for onsite evaluation of the process and monitoring of the program.”

The pilot will be extended to two more counties in March and rolled out statewide July 1, 2012.

Chilton said she expects this measure, too, to cost more than it will save, causing expensive malnutrition-related hospitalizations and incarceration rates to rise. “People will be tricking on the street for the money,” she said.

Furthermore, she worries that it will adversely impact on an unintended demographic. “50 percent of people on food stamps are children. These policies will cost us more money, not just today or this year, but for a generation. There’s a snowball effect of not feeding children.”

She said that children who receive adequate nutrition from state assistance programs, compared to those who are eligible but don’t participate, perform better in school, are less likely to be hospitalized and show improved physical, social and cognitive development.

“People have to change their perception of welfare. It’s a public health program to promote the well-being of families,” she said. “This is not the time to be doing this kind of craziness.”


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