Food Stamps for the Well-Off: A National Trend?

On March 13, Ohio blogger Matt Hurley, who has been running Weapons of Mass Discussion for over five years, received an email from "someone in the business" -- specifically, the social services "business" in Warren County, Ohio, just northeast of Cincinnati (typos in original have been corrected):

Subject: Food Stamp Case

One of the workers here just approved an ongoing food stamp case where the family has over $80,000 in the bank, owns a 2001 Toyota and 2006 Mercedes Benz, and a $311,000 home that is paid for. Monthly benefits of over $500 in FS, received over $300 in expedited.

3 household members -- husband, wife, and child. Wife recently lost job, husband receives SS benefits.

There's something badly wrong with this program that allows a family that kind of resources to still get food stamps.

This is where things have gotten to. I would think the world would want to know about this.

The emailer was only partially correct. Southwestern Ohio was interested, as Warren County and neighboring Butler County pushed back, promising to resist approving similar future aid applications. A Warren County-based state legislator has drafted a bill to tighten eligibility rules.

But most of the rest of the state has shown little interest, and in the rest of the nation there has barely been a ripple. I believe that needs to change.

The fact is that many states quietly and significantly liberalized their food stamp eligibility rules last fall. An October 19 USA Today article was one of the very few that even noticed it. But in doing so, the newspaper's Wendy Koch played down their importance:

Some states are going further to expand eligibility. Last month, California enacted a bill that will allow low-income people to keep some savings and still qualify for food aid. At least four other states -- Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont -- similarly eased the asset test this year.

"People won't have to sink to ground zero to get help," says Paul Fraunholtz, a deputy director in Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services.

Who knew that $80,000 was "some savings"? Or that it's barely above what Ohio's Fraunholtz refers to as "ground zero"?

I have since learned that Ohio's change does not appear to be as comprehensive as it first seemed; the lifting of asset limits such as not having more than $2,000 in the bank, etc., appears to apply only to certain situations (but note that USA Today's Koch incorrectly gave readers the impression that recipients aren't allowed to have any savings). Nevertheless, the fact is that the food stamp program's eligibility rules and benefit structure were just fine before September 30 and there was no crying need for change. (This issue is separate from whether applicants tell the truth when they apply. That has been an ongoing problem for decades and there's no space to address it here.)