A bill at the Legislature would eliminate the asset test for food stamps, so families wouldn't have to deplete their savings to qualify.
As the Great Recession ensnares more middle-class families, how far does a family need to fall before the public safety net kicks in?
Many government programs have requirements for families to spend down much of their savings before they can qualify for temporary assistance. Advocates say these tests undermine a family's ability to bounce back from financial setbacks in the future.
Minnesota's food support program -- better known as food stamps -- is a case in point. To qualify for the assistance, Minnesotans need to have assets below $7,000 -- which amounts to a few months of mortgage payments for many.
"These are really troubled times and people maybe just need help for just a short period," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota. "We don't want to throw people into abject poverty forever."
A draft study on hunger from Second Harvest Heartland found that if the food stamp test was eliminated, between 75,000 and 87,000 low-income Minnesotans would qualify for the public assistance. That would bring an estimated $154 million in economic activity into the state, as families buy more food and stores hire more workers. The federal government pays for the food stamp program, though states set their own rules and administer it.
"These are the families in the shadows ... the families that are really on the edge and may have $7,000 now but won't have $7,000 in a month or two," said Jessica Webster, a former lobbyist for the Legal Services Advocacy Project who was active on this issue, but recently resigned to run for a legislative seat in St. Paul.
Other states already have killed their asset tests. As of December, 21 states had no asset test for food stamps, two had no asset test for most, and another seven had plans to drop theirs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"We really have fallen behind," Webster said.
Perhaps not for long. A bill at the Legislature would do away with the asset test and raise the income limits slightly.
Rep. Patti Fritz, DFL-Faribault, has introduced the bill in the House.
She says the bill would help middle-class families reeling from a job loss or housing crisis avoid maxing out credit cards, liquidating everything and sliding into poverty. And it would do it on the federal government's dime, without adding to the state deficit. Supporters hope the magnitude of the recession and its effect on families from the Iron Range to the inner city will help this bill, which is an amended version of a bill which was introduced last year but never voted on.
Chuck Johnson, state assistant human services commissioner for children and family services, says asset tests come up often in recessions. "You have people who have lost jobs and are heading down in their economic status but haven't really gotten down to the point where they're truly poor and out of all the resources. And then they come and apply for assistance and find often they're not eligible," he said.
Joi Simpson lost the job she held in a print shop for 22 years. The 62-year-old's Social Security payment is $600 per month and she's already cashed out her small retirement account. She applied for food stamps only to learn that she didn't qualify because she took out a mortgage on a home for her daughter, because she has better credit. The house is considered an investment property, although her daughter makes the payments.
"It's not like I'm sitting here wealthy," said Simpson, who owns her own home in Forest Lake. "I lost my job. I have no income .... They should be able to give me help."
She's been relying on food shelves and free meals at churches to stay fed while she job-hunts.
At a recent hearing, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, worried that without an asset test, a person wearing a Rolex and driving a Mercedes could come in seeking help.
Webster insists this wouldn't happen. The notion that well-off people are waiting for the law to be changed to get free food "is the reason why this [provision] has not been passed in Minnesota," she said.
The bill is now being considered for inclusion in the omnibus health and human services finance bill. A companion bill is making its way through the Senate.
Lots of rainy days
Patrick Singel, deputy director of community services for Washington County, thinks eliminating the asset test would be unpopular. "I think in general the expectation of the public is you use your own resources first," Singel said. "It's one of the reasons why people save for rainy days, and we have a lot of rainy weather right now." Minnesota's asset test counts liquid savings such as cash, checking or savings accounts, stocks and bonds, investment property and some vehicles.
"It's always that trade-off between creating access for more people and ensuring you are using resources on the people who most need the assistance," Johnson said.
Food support has become easier to get in recent years. In 2006, the State Legislature amended the test to allow people on food support to keep a car and as much as $7,000 in assets so long as they receive a brochure about domestic violence. Then the 2008 federal farm bill excluded IRAs and 529 college savings plans from the calculation. Last year, the rules changed so that unemployed, able-bodied adults without dependents can receive food stamps for as long as they are needed. As part of the stimulus bill of 2009, Minnesota received $175 million to boost the food support benefit.
Food stamp use has grown dramatically during the economic downturn -- from 279,971 average monthly recipients who see an average of $94.71 monthly in 2008 to 315,576 recipients who get $109.07, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Eligibility is based on household size, income and certain expenses. The maximum amount a single person can receive is $200 per month. A family of four could potentially receive $668, although that's not typical.
Still, the state fails to enroll 55 percent of individuals eligible for food support -- one of the worst utilization rates in the country (44th), according to the Second Harvest study.
And it's one of the costliest programs to run -- the sixth-highest, according to Second Harvest.
Axing the asset test should save time and reduce the burdensome application process, proponents claim.
"At a time when government clearly has fewer resources, [when] we're asking state agencies to do more and more with less, why are we asking them to ask people a page of questions about assets?" said Stacy Dean, director of food assistance policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "That's a waste of everybody's time."
Buying food on credit
Several studies have shown that savings help low-income families climb out of poverty, and that asset tests send the message that there's no point in saving: If you have assets, the safety net won't catch you.
Deborah Schlick, executive director of the Affirmative Options Coalition, a statewide coalition of groups aiming to end poverty, fears that having to spend down assets before qualifying for safety net programs such as food support prolongs the turmoil for families that were once considered solidly middle-class. "If you're able to hold on to some savings, do you emerge from the crisis more quickly and are you able to get back to stability more quickly?"
Jason Friend of Cottage Grove didn't consider food stamps to feed his family of five until he exhausted all of his resources. A carpenter who worked around the clock rebuilding the I-35W bridge but only worked nine days in 2009, Friend used the last of his savings to pay three mortgage payments. Then the family maxed out the gas card, charged groceries and visited food shelves. Food stamps were a last resort. Now he's worried they'll lose their home.
"If we had money in savings, I could probably make it until spring when construction starts back up. But at this point, no, we're going to have to default on our mortgage payment," said 38-year-old Friend.
Sarah Gorvin is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.