JEWISH EXPONENT: Fighting for Food Aid

March 7, 2012

Bryan Schwartzman, Jewish Exponent Staff

The organized Jewish community is going up against Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett in an effort to stand up for food stamp recipients.

The public opposition to the governor reflects an unusual situation for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, groups that generally tend to work behind the scenes to lobby for their causes.

At issue is a proposed change to the state's food-aid program that advocates say will force the poor and elderly to spend down whatever savings they have in order to receive food vouchers.

The question revolves around the reintroduction of an asset test -- checking the financial resources, apart from income, a potential recipient has -- to determine who is eligible to receive assitance through the federal program now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Federation officials stress that the issue is so important that the Jewish community has had no choice but to go public with its concerns over a policy decision taken by Corbett's Republican administration.

"This is a really good federal program," Robin Schatz, director of goverment affairs for Federation, said, referring to SNAP. "The fact that the state Department of Public Welfare is trying to have a negative impact on what is a federal program is very disturbing."

Jewish groups lobbied the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and managed to get a legislative hearing on the issue scheduled for March 15.

Though the legislature is largely powerless on the matter, Federation officials hope the hearings will raise public awareness over the issue and exert pressure on Corbett to change his stance.

SNAP -- which doesn't involve actual food stamps anymore  -- is funded primarily by the federal government and is administered by states, which have broad latitude to set who is eligible to receive and average of $35 a week in food vouchers. About 800,000 low-income Pennsylvanians currently are enrolled in SNAP.

A report last year about a Michigan lottery winner who was still collecting food stamps created a national buzz about the need to examine the financial assets of those who receive public benefits to root out abuses of the system.

Late last year, Gary Alexander, who heads Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare, notified the United States Department of Agriculture that Pennsylvania planned to reintroduce an asset test for the state's SNAP program. Alexander has made it a top priority to reign in on waster and fraud in the department.

Alexander stated in his letter to the federal government that, beginning on May 1, in order to be eligible for SNAP, most households could have no more than $2,000 in what's considered "countable assets" -- savings or possessions like a second car -- and households with elderly or disabled members could have no more than $3,200.

Carey Miller, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, said in an email that the asset test, which had been in effect until 2008, was being reintroduced because of its escalating use.

"From that time, the number of people using SNAP has increased dramatically," explained Miller. "The department feels this is an important reform to ensure individuals use their own resources available before accessing limited public funds."

The $2,000 figure rankled many social service advocates as much as the concept of reintroducing the asset test.

In December, roughly 50 members of Federation's board of trustees signed a letter to Corbett, Alexander's boss, urging him to reverse course.

In January, Brian Gralnick, director of Federation's Center for Social Responsibility, called in the Dom Giordano radio program on CBS Philly while Corbett was a guest.

Gralnick, identifying himself as an employee of Federation, told Corbett that many Jewish seniors wouldn't have money to set aside for a funeral if they were forced to spend down their savings in order to receive needed food vouchers.

"Do you believe that we should not have an asset test?" Corbett said to Gralnick. "If you do, we are just not going to agree, point blank. But if we should, then what is the amount of money, then that becomes a debate."

Gralnick later said of his on-air tussle with the governor: "As long as we do it in a respectful manner, there is no reason that we can't have a public debate about policy that is impacting tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, as well as any taxpayer in the commonwealth.

"We are trying very hard to make this a non-partisan issue," he added.

Representatives of Federation, PJC, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger and United Way of Eastern Pennsylvania continued to meet with officials in the Corbett administration and pressed to raise the threshold for countable resources from $2,000 to as high as $25,000.

On Feb. 1, the Department of Public Welfare announced that it would raise the threshold, to $5,500 for households and $9,000 for households with older Pennsylvanians or disables individuals.

That counts as a victory of sorts, but it's not enough, said Schatz.

Schatz asserted that reintroducing the asset test will cost Pennsylvania money, but Miller, the department spokeswoman, said the administrative costs will be minimal.

Jewish and other officials continued to press the case, meeting with elected officials in Washington and Harrisburg, including State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, the Republican lawmaker from Bucks County who heads the House Human Services Committee.

DiGirolamo agreed to schedule the March 15 hearing, which will focus on the impact of implementing the asset test. No one from Federation or PJC is expected to testify.

DiGirolamo could not be reached for comment.

Joining the organized community in the fight against asset tests is Miriam Boss, an 87-year-old Jewish woman from Torresdale who posted an online petition on Change.org at the suggestion of the Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. So far, the site has garnered more than 10,600 signatures.

"I understand just how bad asset tests are," Boss wrote on the virtual petition, explaining that she had to apply for food aid for the first time in September.

For 25 years before that, she said, she lived on a $1,000 monthly Social Security check. It was not enough to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, she said, and "oftentimes, I went hungry because I couldn't afford to eat. I even fell seven or eight times last year, which my doctor thinks could be the result of malnutrition."

Although Boss will no longer lose her food aid because the asset threshold was raised, an organizer for the Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger said she wanted to continue campaigning against the test on behalf of all the others who would be affected.

"There are thousands of children going hungry in our county, the same with adults and little old ladies like me," Boss said in a statement. "It's not right to take food stamp benefits from those who might need a small amount of savings to cover costs like medical bills, property taxes, burial fees or other expenses. If one person goes hungry because they have too much in savings, then that's one person too many."

Schatz, from the Federation, said that with Corbett in favor of an asset test, there's little chance its reintroduction would be scrapped outright. The hope, she said, is that the more that's known about it, the more public pressure there will be to further raise the amount of assets recipients can have.

Still, Hank Butler, who directs the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, the community's lobbying arm in Harrisburg that is also taking the lead in the matter, said it's still "worth a shot" to try and change Corbett's mind.

"We need to focus on the issue itself," rather than the politics surrounding it, he said, since people are still facing difficult economic times. "The recession is not over."

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