National Edition

How food stamps keep families in a cycle of poverty

Published: Friday, Sept. 6 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

The alternative is to spend some of their savings so they can again qualify for SNAP. “It felt like a no-win situation,” Melissa said, “like we were being forced to choose between what is good for our family in the long term and what our kids need right now.” Survival in the short term and financial security in the long term seemed completely at odds.

Melissa and Jimmy's experience is not unique — according to Reid Cramner, a director with the New America Foundation's Asset Building Program — it is how American welfare works. The rules force "families to choose between a small emergency cushion and putting food on the table," he said in a recent statement for the New American Foundation. "We're forcing them to accept long-term poverty in exchange for short-term assistance."

Changing objectives

Prior to 1996, federal social assistance programs like food stamps focused on providing long-term income support to poor Americans. “Essentially, people could be on welfare indefinitely,” Brooks said. “In this context (when the goal of the program is to provide income support), an asset test makes sense,” Brooks added, explaining that it reduces the likelihood that individuals with the resources to support themselves will claim government assistance.

However, the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” signed by President Bill Clinton in August of 1996, marked a fundamental shift in the American approach to social welfare programs. “The goal of the welfare reform was to move families off government assistance,” Brooks said. “You couldn’t be on welfare forever anymore.”

But when the federal government made these sweeping changes to welfare, the assets test remained in place. The problem with assets tests, however, is that they are “contrary to the goal of getting people off welfare,” according to Brooks. “If a program has the explicit goal of moving people from dependency to self-sufficiency, people need to have an opportunity to build up a safety net before they transition off government assistance.”

The states’ role in welfare

Welfare is federally funded, but it is up to each state to determine how to administer the programs, including SNAP, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Shortly after welfare reform, some states recognized that assets tests didn’t make sense anymore. Since 1996, 35 states eliminated assets tests for SNAP benefits. Five states (Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan and Idaho) increased the amount of assets beneficiaries can hold from $2,000 to between $5,000 and $25,000. Ten states (including Utah, Wyoming, Virginia and Alaska) use the federal government’s $2,000 assets threshold.

Moving off dependence on government benefits is difficult everywhere, but the challenges are especially formidable in states with strict assets limits. In many circumstances it means that families, like Jimmy and Melissa, are getting pushed out of the nest before they can fly. "These programs are supposed to help people transition out of poverty," said Martha Wunderli, state director of the Utah IDA Network, a program of Fair Credit Foundation that helps low-income, working Utahns build assets and move out of poverty. “Building assets is a big part of getting out of poverty ... and it is not fair to remove benefits that help them get out of poverty before they are ready."

Some states are reluctant to change their policies due to fears people will abuse the system. Brooks notes several states reinstituted assets tests after allegations of lotto winners and wealthy elderly retirees receiving benefits were made public by the press.

Brooks recommends that instead of re-instituting assets tests, governments change the rules about what counts as income. “The situation with the lottery winners could have been avoided if state law considered their winnings income, not assets,” Brooks said.

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