In June of 2009, Gov. Butch Otter suspended the asset test for food stamps, a litmus test which prevented families owning a certain amount of personal goods from receiving federal food stamps. Otter's suspension received legislative approval in February on the belief that it would end in May. According to officials within the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW), the suspension will be in effect for at least another year and the agency will again seek legislative approval in early 2011, which may be more difficult the second time around.
Some lawmakers on the panel that gave legislative approval to the suspension of the test did so only because at the time the issue was presented to them, the suspension only had a few months left before it was set to expire. Had legislators voted down the removal of the test, it would have shortened the suspension by about two months. Rep. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, was joined by Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, in his hesitant approval of the suspension. When asked about the new suspension, Thayn blasted employees with DHW, as well as the philosophy behind federal food stamps. "The reason I believe DHW employees don't want to deal with the asset test because it means they would have to work," said Thayn. "The whole philosophy behind federal food aid is wrong because we are missing a good opportunity to teach people how to stretch their food dollars. We are instead teaching people to become reliant on the government for sustenance." Thayn said that he wants to make it more difficult everyone to get food assistance and that he will oppose the second suspension when it is brought before the Legislature in the next session. He also said that he would like the state to teach families how to provide for themselves in times of fiscal hardship.
Prior to Otter's suspension, citizens applying for food stamps were required to provide a list of hard assets, such as cars, homes, travel trailers, and ATV's, to the department in the application process. Many families were turned away because they possessed more than $2,000 in hard assets, which the department has set as the threshold amount. Officials from the department pushed for the suspension due to the slumping economy, which made it much more difficult for families to sell their assets and convert them into cash.
The suspension of the test may have contributed to the rapid growth in federal food stamp use by Idaho families. In January, DHW reported that more than 179,000 Idahoans were utilizing foods stamps, of which one-third were completely new to the program. Then in June, it was reported that increase in the use of food stamps in Idaho topped rates of increase for all other states. According to the report by the Idaho Statesman, the use of food stamps has increased about 43 percent in the past year. Officials from DHW say that the steep increase was helped in part by removal of the asset test, but the suspension of the test was not the sole reason for the jump in people applying for food aid. Tom Shanahan, DHW spokesman, believes that only an additional 5 percent of the increase can be attributed to the suspension. "We think many of these people had no other choice with the economy because all the local food banks and churches did not have enough food to help. Many people were faced with the problem of choosing to make their rent payment or put food on the table.”
The department will continue to handle the large percentages of people on applying for food aid with fewer staffers. The department has been force to close nine field offices and lay off more than 120 workers due to budget shortages. To help with the additional food stamp case load, the department hired 10 workers from May 2009 until June 2010, at a cost of about $231,000 to the state. Those positions were eliminated and remain unfilled. Shanahan told IdahoReporter.com that DHW's responsiveness and customer service may be affected by the loss of the workers. "If we continue experiencing this record caseload growth, we may see our performance suffer in processing the applications because of the reduction of positions, however, it will depend on the economy," said Shanahan.
Leo Morales, a legislative advocate with the Idaho Community Action Network, said that the second suspension by DHW is a positive move, but more needs to be done. "I think it's a step in the right direction," said Morales. "But instead of having to come to the Legislature every year, lawmakers should re-adjust the income level or repeal the asset test altogether." He said that the test is a roadblock for many families who are struggling financially and own two cars that are needed to get parents to jobs. "We think it (removal of the test) is a good thing because many families are still struggling due to the economy and this ensures that they will become more secure and be able to apply for public assistance," he said.