By Alfred Lubrano
In a move that surprised even his most cynical critics, Gov. Corbett on Wednesday night forestalled an estimated $3 billion in cuts to food stamps in the state over the next 10 years.
By doing so, Corbett became the first Republican governor in the country to prevent the cuts ordered by Congress, which is looking to slash $8.6 billion over the next decade to the food-stamp program, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
The governor's decision will preserve benefits for 400,000 Pennsylvania households slated to lose a monthly average of $60 to $65 each in benefits, amounting to $300 million a year, said Kait Gillis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare.
"In these challenging and trying times," Gillis said, "our most vulnerable families may not have been able to absorb another hit."
In November, Congress cut $5 billion in food-stamp benefits nationwide, a loss of $183 million in Pennsylvania SNAP benefits in one year -- $29 per month for families of three, and $36 for families of four.
Corbett has been criticized for imposing an asset test on SNAP benefits, tying eligibility for food stamps to what people possess. "I am thrilled that the same governor who entered office trying to limit SNAP options is now preserving them," said Joel Berg, a national antihunger advocate. "Perhaps there is a growing understanding that supporting SNAP is both good policy and good politics."
Mariana Chilton, another national antihunger advocate, who works at Drexel University's School of Public Health, expressed pleasant surprise over the action.
"It's unusual the governor would do this," she said. "It's a sign he's listening to the people in his Department of Public Welfare, who actually know something about poverty."
The cuts to SNAP delineated in the federal Farm Bill passed last month were being borne by 15 states that operate the "Heat and Eat" program, which coordinates energy assistance with SNAP. Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey are Heat and Eat states.
Under the program, some of the families that received as little as $1 in federal heating assistance saw increased SNAP benefits.
Last month, Congress changed the rules, stipulating in the Farm Bill that a family would have to have at least $20 in heating assistance before receiving increased SNAP benefits.
Corbett committed to increase federal energy aid from $1 to $20. It will work this way:
The energy aid -- known as LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program) -- is federal money given to the state in the form of a block grant.
Corbett will use $8 million from the block grant this year to cover the $19 increase in LIHEAP stipulated by Congress.
No state money will be used.
The extra money taken from LIHEAP won't cut significantly into the fund, which normally runs a surplus at the end of each year, antihunger advocates said.
"We're very pleased," said Maripat Pileggi of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. "This will prevent really devastating cuts to vulnerable households trying to afford nutritious food to get through the month."
Julie Zaebst, program manager of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, agreed. "I cannot tell you how we're absolutely thrilled the governor" and Public Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth "made this decision."
Zaebst added that she hoped "Gov. Christie takes Corbett's lead" and uses his allotment of federal energy assistance money to prevent SNAP cuts. An estimated 157,000 New Jersey households will have their benefits cut, according to the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.
The only other governors who increased heating assistance to hold off SNAP cuts were New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy. Both are Democrats.
When the news broke late Wednesday about Corbett's decision, several advocates speculated that he made the move with his reelection campaign in his mind.
Berg, for one, said it wouldn't matter to him if that were so. "If an elected official does the right thing, it's not for me to judge motivation."
By the Numbers
Number of Pennsylvania households whose benefits will be preserved.
Annual cost of preserving the benefits, worth $60 to $65 a month per household.
Number of N.J. households that could lose benefits unless Gov. Christie acts.
(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer