Governor Corbett Declares War on Food Stamps

By Daniel Denvir
Philadelphia City Paper

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Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has announced a major assault on the food stamp program that feeds 1.8 million Pennsylvanians, including 439,245 in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare announced that on May 1, people under 60 with more than $2,000 in savings or other assets will be barred from receiving food stamps. People over 60 would have a $3,250 cap.

As the Inquirer points out in a detailed look, the move to cut food stamps is way out of line with what other states are doing: “Pennsylvania plans to make the amount of food stamps that people receive contingent on the assets they possess — an unexpected move that bucks national trends and places the commonwealth among a minority of states.”

The trend during the Great Recession, with millions falling into poverty, has been to remove such barriers to assistance. Gov. Ed Rendell eliminated the state’s asset test in 2008. Pennsylvania now joins 11 states with asset tests — including Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota.

Eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” is an old and recurrent refrain from those who seek to dismantle the country’s social welfare system. But it’s a cynical ruse: 30 percent of those eligible for food stamps in Pennsylvania don’t receive them. According to federal data, the Inquirer notes, Pennsylvania has a fraud rate of just one-tenth of 1 percent.

Conservatives frequently bristle at the idea that poor people might have nice things while receiving public assistance (“they have a television on welfare!”). But Pennsylvania will now create the most bizarre of disincentives: dissuading poor people from saving.

“We all know that families need to save money to get off government assistance and achieve self-sufficiency,” according to a press release from Carey Morgan, Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “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.”

The City of Philadelphia has condemned the move, as have local retailers who stand to lose business from food stamp recipients. The food stamp program is a major economic stimulus: every dollar of public funds spent on food stamps grows GDP by $1.73.

There was a time not too long ago when even Republicans seemed to support the food stamp program.

In November 2009, The New York Times announced “Food Stamp Use Soars, and Stigma Fades”: “While the numbers have soared during the recession, the path was cleared in better times when the Bush administration led a campaign to erase the program’s stigma, calling food stamps “nutritional aid” instead of welfare, and made it easier to apply. That bipartisan effort capped an extraordinary reversal from the 1990s, when some conservatives tried to abolish the program, Congress enacted large cuts and bureaucratic hurdles chased many needy people away.”

How quickly things change — for the uglier and more racist. Newt Gingrich frequently calls Obama the “food stamp president” and Rick Santorum has declared, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” In April, House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) proposed cutting $127 billion from the food stamp program. This is all motivated by a powerful idea: it is poor people’s fault that they are poor, and they should be punished for it. And though the program is stigmatized as a handout to urban blacks, whites make up a far greater share of recipients.

According to a recent article in The Nation, 46.3 million Americans benefit from food stamps — one out of seven. In 2010, food stamps brought 3.9 million people out of poverty.

“Food stamps are really the only functioning part of the safety net,” the New York Coalition Against Hunger’s Joel Berg told The Nation. “It’s the only thing left.”

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