Corbett: Save Money or Eat Dinner? Your Choice!

The governor finally gets reckless ... with food stamps.

Most of the time, Governor Tom Corbett is as careful and deliberative as they come. Friends attribute it to his prosecutorial background (so does he, actually). Here’s a man, they say, who built a career carefully weighing the evidence, putting together a watertight case, and moving only after all the facts are in.

Corbett would have you believe his methodical style explains why the investigation into alleged child molester Jerry Sandusky took so long. It would seem to be the reason for his study-it-to-death, outreach-intensive, commission-happy approach on transportation funding, on a Marcellus Shale fee (don’t call it a tax!), on liquor privatization, school vouchers, and so on.

But that caution, that concern for getting all the facts, apparently does not apply when it comes to a little thing like food stamps. Late last month, without forming any commission, consulting any stakeholders, or publishing any report, the state Department of Public Welfare told the Feds that Pennsylvania would begin means-testing food stamps, using the most stringent test allowed by federal law. In plain language, that means low-income people under 60 who manage to sock away more than $2,000 for an even-rainier day will no longer be eligible for food stamps as of May 1st. Those over 60 would lose the benefit if their assets total more than $3,250.

For those of us not singularly obsessed with stamping out the already infinitesimally small amount of fraud in the state’s food stamp system, this new policy appears both inhumane and kind of dumb. How, exactly, is it in the commonwealth’s interest to discourage low-income families from saving what little money they have? We would rather the poor have exactly zero dollars, at all times, the better to ensure they need maximum public assistance for the rest of their lives?

I get that some people flinch when they see food stamps used to purchase items that seem frivolous, and there are anecdotal accounts of abuse that are pretty infuriating. But the data tells us that food stamp fraud is really pretty rare, particularly in Pennsylvania (a fraud rate of less than one percent, according to the USDA).

Using a stingy asset test to target that tiny population of malefactors will punish lots of people who have scrimped and saved for reasons the state should applaud, not punish. A small nest egg could fund a job search, serve as a buffer against immediate homelessness if a job is lost, or just be used to pay the first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit.

It wouldn’t take much of a commission or study to figure all this out. A few minutes’ thought ought to have been enough. I hope the explanation for the administration’s sudden disregard for due process is that the policy change wasn’t on Corbett’s radar at first. But it sure is now. How about it, Governor? There’s still time to collect all the facts and carefully weigh the evidence before making policy that will encourage 850,000 low-income Pennsylvania families to spend every last dollar they have, whether or not it’s in their or the state’s best interest.