Friday, January 20, 2012

Cuts in Benefits Spur Fightback

By Joseph Piette
Published Jan 19, 2012 9:54 PM

Pennsylvania has declared war on the poor. During the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, two recent state decisions have made it more difficult to qualify for programs that benefit the working poor and those without jobs.

On Jan. 10, the Department of Public Welfare announced that people under 60 with more than $2,000 in savings and other assets would no longer be eligible for the food stamp program — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. For people over 60, the assets limit would be $3,250.

Homes and retirement benefits would not be counted as assets. One vehicle would be exempt, but any additional vehicle worth more than $4,650 would be counted.

A senior center worker told Workers World that a DPW staff person said that they are “just getting started,” and that state officials “indicate they are looking at asset tests for many programs, not just food stamps.”

The asset test comes on top of a Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation law change that became effective on Jan. 1. Now severance payments above $18,000 will offset unemployment benefits until the severance is used up.

Most states do not count such benefits against unemployment benefits, recognizing that the extra cash often allows victims of the weak economy to continue payments on their mortgages and other debts. The state’s plan to enforce this statute has not been announced.

In Delaware, the entire severance, even if paid in a lump sum, is divided into weekly payments equal to the laid-off worker’s salary. Only after those weekly payments have ended can unemployment benefits start.

Fightback begins

A fightback movement is starting to emerge. An overflow crowd met at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger offices on Jan. 13 to map out opposition to the asset test. Advocates for the poor and Philadelphia city officials have condemned it. Letters to the editor printed in major establishment newspapers and messages posted on Facebook evince opposition to this terrible rule. The Occupy Philly movement is taking up this issue.

The union representing county assistance workers has also criticized the state’s plan, which would require workers to review the assets of 1.8 million Pennsylvania residents who receive food stamps. “We already have a backlog of cases, and there’s purely not enough workers,” said Donna Scarboro, business agent for Services Employees union Local 668, to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The number of caseworkers statewide has been cut from 1,800 to 1,400 in the last three years. (Jan. 15)

Individual states administer SNAP programs and are permitted to apply asset tests as long as the minimum amount of assets is set no lower than $2,000. That limit has not been increased since 1980. If allowed to rise with inflation, that figure in 2012 would be $5,715.23. Four states have raised their minimum allowable assets to $5,000 or more.

There were 439,245 Philadelphians on food stamps as of December 2010, but only 71 percent of those eligible applied for food stamps. Across the U.S., 46.3 million people get SNAP benefits, which is one out of every seven residents.

The federal SNAP program sends $2.5 billion annually to Pennsylvania. This not only benefits needy children and seniors but is also a boon to the food industry. Every dollar of public funds spent on food stamps increases the gross domestic product by $1.73.

Because of the potential economic losses to businesses, even executives, such as Jeff Brown of Philadelphia ShopRite, have called the DPW decision “mean-spirited” and “bad business strategy.” Brown says that he will lose revenue as 40 percent of his sales depend on food stamps. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 10)

Overwhelmed emergency food agencies in the state oppose the new policy. Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief agency in the region, told the Inquirer: “I’m very pessimistic about our ability to meet people’s needs … this will be a mind-boggling, self-inflicted wound. It makes no compassionate, political, or economic sense.” For many elderly especially, $3,250 in the bank serves as “the poor man’s medical insurance,” he said.

Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said: “So it’s not only inhumane, but counterproductive to force people to drain their savings before they can get any help. Someone with less than $2,000 in the bank would easily be wiped out by one visit to the emergency room.” (Philadelphia City Paper, Jan 10)

The state recently won a federal award for running its program efficiently, with a fraud rate of one-tenth of 1 percent, but food stamps have become a hot political issue. Right-wing Republicans vying to be their party’s presidential candidate are appealing to their political adherents by whipping up racist attacks on oppressed communities as they call for cuts in food stamp programs — even though white workers and their families make up half of the benefits’ recipients.

As Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York Coalition against Hunter has stressed, today the food stamp program is “the only thing left” in the safety net. The food stamp program is a necessity for working-class families in Pennsylvania and throughout the country during this economic crisis.

It must be defended by all progressive people and should be expanded without restrictions and limitations to everyone who needs food assistance.

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