In early March, Governor Corbett became the first Republican governor to prevent SNAP cuts included in the most recent farm bill, a piece of federal legislation which deals with food and agricultural policy. This was a surprising move from a governor whose policies have rarely benefited Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens.
The governor’s decision is worthy of praise because it will protect 400,000 families across the state from seeing their SNAP benefits slashed. This is especially important given SNAP benefits were already cut nationwide in November when the boost provided by the 2009 stimulus bill expired.
Has Gov. Corbett finally seen the light on SNAP, or was his decision politically motivated?
Though many have said his motive is irrelevant, Gov. Corbett can easily prove to the citizens of Pennsylvania that he was not playing politics with hunger by getting rid of the state’s asset test for SNAP.
Five months have passed since Pennsylvania’s public welfare secretary, Beverly Mackereth, began “rethinking” the test, but the controversial policy remains on the books. At the time, Gov. Corbett said he would take the secretary’s thoughts into consideration.
Governor Corbett can do more than take her thoughts into consideration; he can and should back a full repeal of this policy.
The asset test has been in place since May 2012. The test considers residents under the age of 60 with more than $5,500 in assets and those who are disabled or over the age of 60 with more than $9,000 in assets to be ineligible for SNAP. Certain assets, such as a home, first car or retirement savings, are not included in the test.
According to Jennifer Wright, the public policy coordinator at Philabundance, the asset test “unfairly penalizes those who may have extremely low incomes and very well may experience food insecurity, but who work to save responsibly to avoid falling even further into economic hardship.”
The Department of Public Welfare said about 4,000 applicants were denied or lost SNAP benefits because they had too many assets in the first year the test was implemented.
One of those applicants was Jocelyn Little, a small-business owner currently residing in Harrisburg, who questioned the intent of the asset test:
“Am I supposed to spend all my savings just to qualify for more assistance? I buy food out of what I earn, not what I have saved. And that is about the only area of spending I can control, so I buy less. That benefit was something I could depend on. I knew I had enough food even when I had a bad month.”
The DPW also denied SNAP benefits to over 100,000 otherwise qualified applicants merely because they could not supply the necessary paperwork for the test. This occurred even though Pennsylvania continues to maintain one of the lowest fraud rates for SNAP nationwide as well as one of the slowest rates for approving SNAP applications.
Making matters worse, the asset test has not saved the state money because SNAP benefits are fully funded by the federal government. In fact, the Corbett administration is using taxpayer money to employ this extremely bureaucratic policy, money that might be better used elsewhere.
Though it was implemented to reduce waste, fraud and abuse, the evidence indicates the asset test accomplishes none of these goals. Rather, it (1) discourages savings at a time of prolonged economic uncertainty; (2) deprives Pennsylvania’s neediest citizens of basic sustenance and; (3) wastes both time and money.
Gov. Corbett should prove that his recent move to bolster the SNAP program was not politically motivated by encouraging Secretary Mackareth to fully examine the evidence and then quickly repeal the asset test.
His recent decision saved hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania families from SNAP cuts. This move would not only prevent thousands more from going hungry, but it would also indicate that his real goal is to lift the impoverished up rather than trap them at the bottom.
It may or may not be good politics, but it would be the right thing to do.
Megan Johnson is a graduate student in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.