Families must be able to save money in order to achieve self-sufficiency and prosper. Unfortunately, the federal government often forgets this common-sense principal.
Many public benefits programs—like cash welfare or Medicaid—limit eligibility to those with few or no assets. If a family has assets over the state’s limit, it must “spend down” longer term savings in order to receive what is often short-term public assistance. These asset limits are a relic of entitlement policies that no longer exist, since cash welfare programs now focus on quickly moving families to self-sufficiency rather than allowing them to receive benefits indefinitely. In other words, although personal savings and assets are precisely the kind of resources that allow families to move off—and stay off—public benefit programs, asset limits actually discourage anyone receiving public benefits from saving for the future.
States have full discretion in setting or eliminating asset limits for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). They also have some flexibility to address asset limits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). Several states have eliminated asset limits in TANF, Medicaid and SCHIP, and 38 states have eliminated asset tests in SNAP.
Pennsylvania is one of these states. In 2008, when the recession hit and unemployment soared, it dropped asset limits in its SNAP program. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Works (DPW) recently announced that it wants to reinstate these tests. Under the proposal, individuals under 60 could have no more than $2,000 in assets, and individuals over 60 could have no more than $3,250, not including retirement accounts and homes. This is devastating news for the state’s 850,000 families currently receiving SNAP benefits. It would also be a blow to Pennsylvania’s economy since research shows that every $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.73 in economic activity.
This proposed policy reversal is highly unusual because the trend among states has been to eliminate asset tests. So what is different about Pennsylvania? According to Anne Bale, a spokesperson for the DPW, Pennsylvania residents have complained about fraud and abuse in the SNAP program. DPW’s hope is that reinstituting asset limits would eliminate this waste, without requiring the state to spend money on fraud detection and prosecution. However, the state recently won an award for running the most efficient state SNAP program and has one of the lowest rates of SNAP fraud in the nation: 1/10 of 1%. Moreover, the state would not really save any money since it’s likely that more caseworkers would need to be hired and all caseworkers would need to receive training on the new limits and how to apply them. Added to the cost of software to computers, asset limits and the extra workload of understaffed offices, any cost savings would be slim. It would be a no-win situation: both bad for the state’s economy and bad for people trying to escape poverty’s cycle.
This proposed policy sends entirely the wrong message: Do not pull yourself up out of poverty; rather remain in the cycle of poverty, dependent on government benefits. It’s simply bad public policy to require people to spend all their assets in order to ensure a meal on the table then tell them that they need to save and become self-sufficient!
It time to do away with asset limits once and for all. Grab your fork and tell Pennsylvania and other states to stop sticking it public benefit recipients.