Why larger Pennsylvania families get more SNAP help than smaller ones – except three-person ones

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — It seemed to make so little sense that there had to be some kind of mistake.

Single-dad-on-disability Michael Wentling, of Cumberland County, saw his monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits drop when one of his three children living at home moved out, leaving a household of three rather than four. That part made sense: Holding everything else constant — income received, rent paid and so forth — a smaller family would get less help than a bigger one.

But the drop was steep: from $177 when his daughter moved out (before recent increases in benefits) to nothing, according to letters he received from Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services (DHS). The part that made no sense at all? When Wentling entered his information into a popular online calculator and changed the family size, he learned that although a family of four with his income and expenses would now get $206 and a family of three would get nothing, a family of two would get $23 monthly — modest, but more than the zero he’s getting.

“I talked to some of the workers at DHS when I went in and it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s a family of three thing,'” Wentling said. Thinking lots of families of three could be suffering similarly, he called abc27 News.

abc27 News contacted DHS, which didn’t respond, and SNAP Screener, a widely-used online benefits calculator.

Charges filed against 94 people in Pennsylvania for public assistance fraud 

Ben Molin, SNAP Screener’s cofounder, emphasized the service — which sources publicly-available data — is unofficial and unaffiliated with any government; governments determine SNAP eligibility.

That said, he pointed abc27 News to this DHS memo, which — in two bullet points toward the bottom of page two — confirms it’s indeed possible for a three-person household to get less than a two-person household. That’s because a two-person household meeting income requirements will always get the minimum benefit (currently $23), because a three-person household will not.

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The quirk might result partly from Pennsylvania’s relatively generous SNAP eligibility — it is tied for the highest among all states by allowing eligibility at up to 200% of federal poverty limits, the maximum allowed under federal law. But whereas many other households in Pennsylvania benefit from the expanded eligibility, three-person households with Wentling’s income and expenses do not — and, sure enough, get even less than the two-person households.

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