Proposed change in eligibility rules endangers food stamps for 170,000 Pennsylvanians

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by Eric Mayes

(NNPA)–John Manton is struggling to hang on unemployed, without health insurance, worried about keeping his home. He’s now also concerned that proposed changes to eligibility requirements for food stamps will leave him worried about something else: putting food on the table.

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“I can’t cut any further, I’m cut to the bone now,” said the 64-year-old Roxborough resident.

He receives about $37 a week in food stamps toward food bills that average about $51 a week. That assistance would vanish for Manton and about 170,000 other Pennsylvanians under a proposed change in rules that would require food stamp recipients to pass an asset test. Under the proposal, seniors and individuals on disability would lose their benefits if they have assets valued at $3,000 or more, excluding their primary residence and personal property. For everyone else, the cut-off would be $2,000.

For people like Manton, any money he saves is money he’ll need, not a luxury.

“I have about $3,000 in the bank,” he said, noting that he was keeping the money for emergencies and large expenses. “Twenty-five hundred dollars is earmarked for the new real estate tax plus I owe another $835 for the homeowners insurance.”

Unemployed since April, Manton lives on $195 a week in unemployment benefits. His last day on the job at a legal services company, a position he had for more than three years, was April 29.

He’s been looking for work ever since.

“Nobody even calls me in and I don’t know why,” he said, adding that he suspects that his age was a barrier.

He feels he needs to hang on to a little bit of money.

“What people have in the bank is all they have in the bank and $3,000 is not a lot of money,” he said. “If you go the hospital for some emergency, they want $385 for the ER plus the doctor’s fee, plus the tests, plus whatever else they do to you. So, you’re talking $900 right there just to go to the hospital. Suppose your pipes burst? You have to have a little bit of money to fall back on.”

But, that little nest egg would bar him from getting food stamps if the new rules are approved.

He’s worried that would be just the start of a downward spiral—ultimately leading to the loss of the home he’s lived in for 52 years.

“I’m just hoping God will permit me to live with some kind of income that will permit me to keep my house,” he said.

There are much larger economic implications too.

“It could jeopardize the health of our whole enterprise,” said Grant McLoughlin, executive vice president of supermarket chain Fresh Grocer.

The food stamp program, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as it is officially called, is an entitlement program that helps the larger economy as well as individuals, he said.

Reciting state statistics, McLoughlin said that for every $1 the state spends in food stamps, it generates $1.73 in spending.

His company operates nine grocery stores—five Fresh Grocers and four Sav-A-Lots—in neighborhoods across the city. Many of those neighborhoods are considered urban grocery deserts, and serve poorer residents.

“Between the two, we do a substantial amount of business…over $50 million a year with SNAP,” he said, estimating that about 34 percent of business at the Fresh Grocer stores was SNAP and 57 percent of the Sav-A-Lot’s business was in food stamps.

That translates to about 500,000 hours of labor.

“That could potentially be in jeopardy if they eliminate or reduced some of those benefits,” he said. “We keep people employed because we do so much business with food stamps.”

Which means that cuts in the SNAP program would lead to fewer jobs.

“It’s a downward spiral,” McLoughlin said. “If you reduce the top line sales because you’re reducing food stamp benefits, and you end up laying people off—then you’re going to throw more people on the ranks of public assistance.”

The plight of residents and businesses has city officials concerned.

“”We’re concerned about this not only for the number of people that are going to be impacted by the loss of food stamps, which will be devastating,” said Mary Horstmann, the city’s deputy director of policy planning and coordination. “But, also because food stamps are a great economic driver for the city.”

According to city figures, 450,000 Philadelphians receive food stamps. That compares to about 850,000 recipients statewide. Horstmann was unsure how many city residents would be affected by the change, but said the impact would be substantial.

The affects would trickle down and worsen the city’s overall economic health.

“We think this is a bad time to be losing jobs,” she said.

The change could be put in place as early as March.

Department of Public Welfare Executive Deputy Secretary Timothy Costa outlined his plans to change eligibility rules in October in testimony before the Pennsylvania House.

The department has the authority needed to make the changes without approval from the state legislature. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, does need to sign off on the plan, something Horstmann said she expected to happen.

In his testimony, Costa said the change would reduce the state’s costs and cut fraud. State officials hope to slash $470 million from the state welfare department’s budget.

Horstmann urged residents to write their legislators or the governor to oppose the new plan.

The Coalition Against Hunger has started a letter writing campaign urging Gov. Tom Corbett to oppose the change.

“With Pennsylvania still reeling from the recession—and the possibility of a double-dip recession looming—it is imperative that we preserve federal support programs like SNAP that help families and communities weather these tough economic times,” says the letter.

Manton is afraid the battle to preserve the program will have to be carried out by advocates—because its beneficiaries are scared to complain.

“Most people that are in my predicament are afraid to write letters,” he said. “They fear that if they complain, they’ll be cut off as a troublemaker.

(Eric Mayes is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Tribune. He can be reached at 215-893-5742 or emayes@phillytrib.com.)

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