Meadville Tribune

State News

January 16, 2014

GOP proposes plan to keep food stamp access from luxury car owners

HARRISBURG — Food stamp recipients couldn’t drive luxury cars under a Republican plan to further restrict assets of those who receive government assistance.

The proposal would bar food stamp recipients from having cars worth more than $35,000. It also would require the state lottery to report information about winners to the Department of Welfare.

“The intent of this measure is to assure that only those who are truly in need of benefits are receiving them,” said Casey Long, policy director for Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati. “A strong case can be made that if someone can afford a luxury vehicle, they are likely not in true need of taxpayer funded public assistance.”

Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, is co-sponsoring the plan with Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill County.

Those backing the bill concede that anyone collecting food stamps while driving a luxury car is probably already breaking the law to afford the vehicle, Long said. However, it’s possible that someone could receive the car as a gift.

Pennsylvania already limits food stamps to those living in households with $5,500 in assets or less for people under age 60. The figure is $9,000 for households whose members are age 60 and older, or those including a person with a disability.

That asset test, implemented in 2012, does not count the value of a home, retirement benefits and one car.

More than 800,000 households in Pennsylvania receive food stamps, and 99.9 percent have passed the asset test, according to Department of Public Welfare data. In the period between November 2012 and November 2013, the department booted 2,313 households that failed the test from the food stamp program, said Kathaleen Gillis, a spokeswoman with the Department of Public Welfare.

The latest bill adds a restriction on cars worth $35,000. Long said they set the value having calculated the average cost of a new car at about $31,000.

That means, technically, someone on food stamps could own a Cadillac ATS, with a sticker price of $32,348. Online calculators show the monthly payment on that car would run about $500, after a $5,000 downpayment, or about the same amount a family of three receives each month in food stamps.

Under current rules, lottery winnings also prevent a person from qualifying for food stamps, but the state now depends on lottery winners to notify the welfare department that they are no longer eligible.

Those who help the poor concede that some people game the system. But Helen Robinson, community services director of the Community Action Partnership of Cambria County, said she believes those who abuse the system get caught.

Along those lines, Gillis, the welfare department spokeswoman, said the state has identified 19,000 cases of people who’ve used benefit cards in other states for long periods. Cards were shut off in nearly half of those cases, saving the state $10.9 million, she said.

Certain loopholes allow welfare recipients some types of assistance regardless of their lifestyle choices. For instance, aid is available for emergency housing regardless of the reason the person is broke, Robinson said.

“If you spent all your money on liquor and gambling,” you can still get (emergency housing) assistance, she said.

Jean Johnstone, of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, said her agency advises those seeking benefits to shed expenses for things like cellphones, cable television and cigarettes.

However, Johnstone acknowledged the needs of those who can’t afford many other of life’s pleasures. “That may be all they have,” she said. “We even teach them how to roll their own cigarettes to save money. We try to be practical."

“Do we get scammed? Yes,” Johnstone said. The greater problem, she said, is that the amount of aid available is insufficient to help everyone in need.

State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria, said the proposals to restrict benefits are “getting the point of ridiculous.” Just months ago, he noted, food banks complained that cuts in food stamps were forcing more people to turn to charity.

Senate Democrats dismissed the Republican proposal as a stunt.

“Every two years during an election cycle, Republicans unveil this type of legislation,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, the Democratic chairman of the appropriations committee.

“There is no question we want to root out (welfare fraud),” said Sen. Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, during a press briefing. Costa said it’s far from clear, however, whether the savings from the new rules would justify the cost of finding the fraud in the first place.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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