Not long after graduating from high school, Khalil Smith moved out of his mother’s house in Olney to live with his grandmother in Hunting Park. At the time, he had never thought that he would find himself needing help just to eat.
“For my mom to pull out her MAC [Money Access Card] or her money and start paying for the food, it was really nothing. That’s how I looked at it,” Smith said. “But as you get older, you start to think about it. Food is important now. Food was never important to me.”
At 19 and without a steady job, Smith was low on income and on food. Taking the advice of his grandmother, he applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which until 2008 was still called the Food Stamp Program.
An estimate from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare showed that in the past year, the number of state residents using food stamps increased by more than 100,000. In contrast, other assistance programs have seen a decline or minimal rise in enrollment.
The close to two million people enrolled in SNAP throughout the state represents 14 percent of the population, roughly mirroring the national average. In Hunting Park, that number skyrockets to 43 percent.
“We’ve seen more people on the program now then we ever have,” said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
“That’s not because it’s gotten easier, but because the economy is down,” Morgan said. “The system has been designed to expand and contract.”
Morgan claimed that there are still 180,000 people in the Philadelphia area who are eligible for SNAP, but are still not enrolled. This, she said, is because they don’t know they are eligible, are afraid of the stigma still associated with food stamps or a number of other reasons.
“It’s one of those misconceptions that people, once they’re on the program, they stay on it,” Morgan said, adding that the average time spent on the program is nine months.
Morgan said the old vision of the welfare mom driving a Mercedes was a “suburban myth” that causes problems when taking an exception and applying it as the rule.
New Policy Will Limit Access to SNAP For Some
Still, things may get more difficult for some families and individuals next week, when DPW implements a new guideline for participation in the program.
Starting May 1, a new asset test will be used in determining eligibility for the program, which will result in a number of people losing their food benefits.
People with more than $5,500 in savings or other assets will not be able to remain in SNAP. The threshold will be $9,000 for those 60 and older.
Under the original announcement, the asset test was set to $2,000 and $3,250 respectively. Those figure represent the national minimum standard set by the US Department of Agriculture. The decision to increase the amount was made to better reflect the cost of living, said DPW spokesperson Donna Morgan.
“The program was designed for the most in need,” Morgan said. “And we’re looking for people to, if they have more than $5,500 to use some of their own assets. We’re just asking for at some point, some limits for access to this program and the tax dollars that support it.”
The assessment will not take into consideration houses, retirement benefits or educational savings. A first car will be exempt, as well as a second that is worth no more than $4,650.
The test is not mandated by the USDA and there are 35 states, along with the District of Columbia, that do no use an asset test.
Despite an outcry from hunger advocacy groups, the DPW’s Morgan said the intention is to conserve funding for the most in need, while still encouraging those who are eligible to apply.
However, Carey Morgan of the hunger coalition is concerned that the changes will end up putting more stress on those in need, even if they still meet the requirements.
With the asset test, Morgan said case workers would now become like car evaluators. In turn, this would increase the length of time it takes for applicants to start receiving their benefits from what she sees as an already overstretched bureaucracy.
Jay Ostrich, a spokesperson for Harrisburg free-market think tank, Commonwealth Foundation, said he believes that is diverting away from the issue.
“Basically, what we’re doing is asking an auditor to do an audit,” Ostrich said. “We’re not asking for an additional strain, we’re asking them to do their job.”
Ostrich said he believes that the new test is a common sense way to make sure fraud and abuse are eliminated from the system, while making sure people who need help still receive it.
“Our priorities are upside down,” Ostrich said. “We certainly want fraud, waste and abuse to stop in Pennsylvania. The more dollars that go to people who don’t need them, the less goes to people that do.”
Fraud, specifically food stamp trafficking, only occurs for every one cent on the dollar, which is significantly down from previous years and is found to largely be committed by food retailers. However, that change starts to add up with the addition of other problems.
According to testimony given by a Government Accountability Office department head, improper payments by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and state partners to SNAP recipients exceed $2 billion.
To help counter fraud, this year DPW will be creating a Program Integrity Intake Unit that will investigate applicants who are deemed high-risk for fraud, prior to their acceptance into SNAP.
As far as the asset test goes, the DPW’s Morgan said it will impact very few, saving the program for the most needy and not opening it up to a huge population.
“This is a very small, very focused effort,” Morgan said of the number of people who will be removed from SNAP. “We’re talking less than 1 percent.”
However, that 1 percent represents more than 18,000 beneficiaries who could lose funding that helps pay for food.
Learning to Accept a Hand Up, Not a Handout
Even after seeing the reality of food costs firsthand, Smith was still apprehensive about his decision to enroll in SNAP.
“At first I didn’t want it, because I feel as though people might judge me,” Smith said. “People [were] going to think I was poor.”
After being in the program for two years and seeing so many others who are in it too, Smith has grown more comfortable with using his SNAP card at the grocer.
And with the asset test going into effect next week, Smith, who is now 21, said he isn’t too worried about what will happen next. He recently started working at Home Depot and continues training with the Philadelphia Job Corps.
“I didn’t know what I really wanted to do,” Smith said. “It’s like I’m on the right track. I know what I want to do a little bit now, more than I did before.”