State Line Road, along the border of Illinois and Indiana, defines more than geographic boundaries — it also defines the economic futures of struggling families.
In Illinois, the social safety net (think the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and other assistance programs) is designed as a springboard toward financial stability. In Indiana, that safety net can trap families in poverty. This week, the House of Representatives is poised to use the farm bill to compel all 50 states to adopt Indiana’s approach. This setback would be a major blow for low-income families and the agencies that serve them.
Imagine the Smiths in Lansing, Ill. The Joneses live across the street, but in Munster, Ind. Both households are led by a single mother with two children. Both women recently lost their jobs at the same warehouse and have $4,800 in savings. Both are coping but will soon turn to public support since work is so hard to find.
Ms. Jones is likely headed for years in poverty, enmeshed in a broken system — while Ms. Smith may get the short-term support she needs and then leave public assistance for good.
What’s the difference? While Illinois allows low-income families accessing assistance to save, Indiana forces families to choose between saving and getting help. Indiana imposes arbitrary asset limits — a cap on the savings and resources a family can have and qualify for support like SNAP. The House Agriculture Committee recently voted to impose Indiana’s approach nationwide by axing states’ option to raise or eliminate their SNAP asset limits. The Senate rejected a similar amendment. This week, the full House takes up the bill.
Like almost 40 other states, Illinois has eliminated its SNAP asset limit, while in Indiana, a family with more than $2,000 is ineligible for support. If either family needed cash assistance, Indiana would limit the Joneses to $1,000, while Illinois just became the eighth state to allow families to save without a cap.
Ms. Smith will be approved for assistance with $4,800 in the bank. She’ll receive a small supplement each month to buy groceries, allowing her family to maintain a modest savings cushion. The Joneses’ $4,800 disqualifies them. They begin depleting their savings immediately to pay for food. Still struggling a few months later, they reapply and qualify for SNAP — this time with less than $2,000.
The complications don’t end there for Ms. Jones: All SNAP applicants are subject to a vigorous evaluation of their income, expenses and immigration status. But in Indiana, the Jones family must also furnish extensive documentation of their assets, from bank statements to vehicle registrations to proof of lump sum payments or settlements. This red tape is more trouble than it is worth. Since Pennsylvania reinstated its SNAP asset test last year, only 4,000 of 1.8 million applicants have been denied for excess savings. Meanwhile, 17,000 additional families have been disqualified for failing to jump through the hoops correctly.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.