On January 20, Tom Wolf will be sworn in as Pennsylvania’s new governor. As a regional non-profit leader on issues of poverty and hunger insecurity, Just Harvest offered our support and information to the government-elect as an aid to his policy direction-setting process. Towards that end we made the following recommendations and requests to him and his team to ensure better services and quality of life for low-income Pennsylvanians:
- Items within the governor’s executive authority
We recommend that Governor Wolf order the commonwealth’s Department of Human Services to forgo the resource test in determining SNAP benefits (food stamps) eligibility and need. Penalizing Pennsylvanians for their important assets, such as their car or home, in their attempt to access nutrition assistance benefits is detrimental to their and their community’s overall wellbeing, perpetuates the cycle of poverty, and excludes the newly poor from needed help. Ending the resource test would also redress its undue burden on caseworkers by eliminating the massive amounts of paperwork it requires.
We also request that the governor:
- Appoints a new Secretary of the Department of Human Services who is sensitive to and knowledgeable of the needs that low-income Pennsylvanians face;
- Makes sub-cabinet appointments to coordinate inter-agency work on food and hunger;
- Reviews our report, Barriers to Benefits: Communication and Customer Service Problems in Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare. It details how long wait times, mismanaged applications, processing errors, and overwhelmed caseworkers significantly contribute to the barriers Pennsylvanians face when accessing services from the Department of Public Welfare (now DHS);
- Increases SNAP income guidelines to 200% of the federal poverty level, which underestimates the cost of living;
- Expands categorical eligibility for SNAP, such as by adopting standard medical or utility allowances rather than forcing applicants to itemize medical expense deductions. This would also greatly reduce caseworker paperwork;
- Ensures access to TANF benefits for all needy Pennsylvanians by addressing the high application rejection rate and overall caseload reduction, which has to do with multiple issues such as overly punitive sanctions and unrealistic eligibility requirements;
- Expands access to education for TANF clients, including GED training and certification; and
- Directs the Department of Human Services to expand their SNAP outreach to better reduce the large statewide gap between benefits eligibility and receipt.
- Items requiring approval from the state legislature
We recommend that the governor works with the state legislature to increase TANF benefit amounts, which haven’t been raised in 23 years. We recommend that he also encourages them to increase the Earned Income Disregard in order to address the “benefits cliff” causing newly employed TANF families to feel as if they are no better off financially than they were before working. There is support on both sides of the aisle for these measures.
We also request that the governor:
- Drafts a 2015-16 budget that includes increased funding for the Department of Human Services to hire additional caseworkers throughout the state. In addition to this, the complement for Department of Human Services needs to be adjusted to accommodate the increase in caseworkers. Hiring more caseworkers can effectively reduce barriers to benefits access mentioned prior, leading to increased participation in these important poverty assistance programs; and
- Commit to ensuring that PA has no subsidized childcare waiting list (something his predeccesor accomplished) by providing adequate funding in his 2015-16 budget.
- Items that may require approval from the state legislature, depending on funding
We encourage Gov. Wolf to move ahead with his campaign promise to adopt full Medicaid Expansion, and to, in the interim, peel back the cuts and reductions to benefits and services that Healthy PA puts in place.
The Child Nutrition Act of 2010 mandates that states transfer the WIC programs from a paper voucher system to an Electronics Benefits Transfer system by October 1, 2020. Many states have already developed and implemented their plans to make the change. We are encouraging Gov. Wolf to commission the Department of Health to move forward and implement a statewide plan for Pennsylvania. There is federal money to support the upgrade and we should take advantage in an effort to improve the WIC benefits delivery system for pregnant mothers and infants across the state.
Finally, we wish to point out that Pennsylvania has historically been assertive about seeking allowable waivers from federal rules that permit the state to more easily deliver services to people in need. This includes waivers like heat-and-eat, “categorical eligibility,” no-work-requirements on food stamps for ABAWD’s (able bodied adults without dependents), and, until recently, the asset test. We hope the governor continues to leverage these opportunities.
We congratulate Tom Wolf on his new role as Governor of Pennsylvania and we are encouraged by the commitments his campaign made throughout the gubernatorial race. We ask that Gov. Wolf remain dedicated to enacting these campaign promises. We present these recommendations with the hope that we will see their implementation throughout his term as governor. We are of course happy to help in any way possible through our leadership in Southwest PA and through working with our allies statewide.
The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger along with Just Harvest and nearly 60 other allies also presented Governor-elect Tom Wolf with a briefing paper highlighting the impact of hunger on children and older residents, the state’s effort to fight hunger and how to maximize participating in federal nutrition programs, as well as recommendations on hunger policy for the governor.