1.7 million in Pa. brace for food stamp reform

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 9:54 p.m.

A slate of proposed changes in how food stamp benefits are calculated and a tightening of states' flexibility in running the programs could impact more than a million Pennsylvanians receiving the assistance.

The changes are part of a measure approved by the U.S. House on Thursday that would cut nearly $4 billion a year for the next 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which helps one in seven people nationally and statewide buy groceries.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill if the Democrat-controlled Senate approves it.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, has vowed to fight the proposal.

Casey said data show $1 in SNAP spending generates $1.70 in economic activity.

“Over the last few years, the Senate has pushed for substantial reforms to the SNAP program to improve efficiency and effectiveness,” Casey said. “Despite these steps, the House is intent on further eroding a program that is vital to thousands of Pennsylvania children and seniors.”

About 1.7 million Pennsylvanians receive food stamps, with about 68 percent being families with children, slightly under the national level of 72 percent.

About 36 percent of those on food stamps statewide live with elderly or disabled family members compared with 27 percent nationally, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Pennsylvania ranked fourth in terms of residents older than 65 with nearly 2 million, according to the 2010 census.

A family of four can make no more than about $36,000 a year and an individual can make no more than about $17,000 annually to qualify, said Anne Bale, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare, which administers SNAP.

“(SNAP benefits are) primarily in place for families, which is why more children benefit from the program than any other age group,” Bale said.

House conservatives, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said the almost $80 billion-a-year federal SNAP program has become bloated with more than 47 million Americans now on food stamps.

“The compassionate thing to do in the situation is not to continue growing government and encouraging people to depend on the government,” said Elizabeth Stelle, policy analyst for the conservative Commonwealth Foundation. “So instead of just continuing to entrench that dependence, this food stamp bill … addresses the root causes of their poverty,” which is lack of employment.

“They're trying to make sure the benefits go to people who need it most,” Stelle said.

Democrats said the rise in the rolls during tough economic times showed the program was doing its job.

One of the proposed changes affects applicants whose utility bills are rolled into their rent, many of them senior citizens living in subsidized housing, according to Ken Regal, executive director of the anti-hunger advocacy group Just Harvest in Pittsburgh.

Regal said that under the revised rules, these applicants would be required to file more paperwork to receive the same level of benefits because they do not have separate, itemized bills showing how much they pay for each utility.

The bill would largely eliminate so-called categorical eligibility, a method used by many states that allows people to automatically qualify for food stamps if they receive other social welfare benefits. The move would cut about 2.1 million food stamp recipients from the rolls nationally, officials said.

“Pennsylvania is one of many states that has chosen to do that,” Regal said. “It saves administrative costs, reduces administrative errors ... and also makes sure someone who's teetering on the edge and having a hard time making ends meet gets a little bit in food stamps.

“Because Pennsylvania has a history of opting into these kinds of waivers when they can — because Pennsylvania has a higher-than-average elderly population and a relatively higher cost of living than other parts of the country — it seems logical we would be affected by these cuts even more than the average state,” Regal said.

The measure approved on Thursday includes a work requirement, which allows states to require 20 hours of work activities per week from any able-bodied adult with a child older than 1 if that person has child care available. The requirements would be applicable to all parents whose children are older than 6 and attending school.

Records show food stamp recipients total more than 237,000 in the Pittsburgh area with about 162,900 in Allegheny County, 43,200 in Westmoreland County and about 31,000 in Fayette County.

The maximum benefit for an individual in Pennsylvania is $200 a month, while a family of four can receive as much as $668 a month.

The legislation is a House effort to finish work on a wide-ranging farm bill, which has historically included farm programs and food stamps.

The House Agriculture Committee approved a combined bill this year, but it was defeated on the floor in June after conservatives revolted, saying the cuts to food stamps were not high enough. That bill included about $2 billion in cuts annually.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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