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Asset test a liability, roundtable participants say

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Poorer families often need short-term financial assistance when family members lose jobs or face serious health problems.

State government leaders should reduce current requirements that those families must deplete all their savings and assets before they can qualify to receive short-term assistance.

Those were the themes during a roundtable discussion on Wednesday afternoon hosted by the West Virginia Alliance for Sustainable Families (WVASF) at the Charleston Area Alliance Conference Center on Smith Street in Charleston.

Michelle Foster, CEO of the Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action, formally released a new report about the economics in all 50 states that was prepared by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED).

The study -- Assets & Opportunity Scorecard -- found 47 percent of all West Virginians have almost no savings to fall back on when they lose their main source of income.

WVASF Marketing and Outreach Manager Sarah Vintorini said her group helps people "plan for their financial future."

Foster said West Virginia has one of the nation's highest percentages of low-wage jobs, more than 30 percent, compared to 25 percent nationally.

"Low-wage jobs are a major issue in this state. Sub-prime lending is another major issue. We also have a lower math and reading efficiency, and a lower rate of college graduation than surrounding states.

"A lot of work needs to be done," Foster said.

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said churches, community centers and local health centers are major assets helping the welfare of local citizens.

"But our philanthropic and foundation assets are very low. West Virginia ranks 49th in those assets per capita."

West Virginia has one of the highest percentages of residents who own their own homes.

"But the median value of homes in West Virginia was $99,000 in 2011 -- the lowest in the country," Boettner said. "Mobile homes are 17 percent of our housing stock."

The Rev. Dennis Sparks, a former executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, runs Sparks Innovative, which lobbies state legislators and urges them to make changes to benefit West Virginia residents.

Sparks praised the Legislature for helping the Boy Scouts get new roads to help visitors reach their new national campsite in Fayette County and for creating better state insurance coverage for children with autism.

He also praised the Legislature for raising the tax threshold for lower-income families back in 2007. Before the legislation, those who earned $10,000 or more paid taxes. The Legislature had raised the tax threshold to $20,000.

"We need to improve laws on predatory loans," Sparks said. "We did a lot on health care, but we still have a long way to go."

Last year, the new CFED report points out, West Virginia had the nation's fourth-lowest rate of low-income children without health insurance, largely because of the state's Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.

WVASF officials also distributed a pamphlet written by Elizabeth Paulhus, a policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, titled, "Save Up, Not Spend Down: Eliminating the Asset Test for Families in Medicaid and TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families]."

"Income helps [families] meet their daily needs, while assets like retirement accounts, homes and vehicles or bank accounts help families weather economic downturns and financial emergencies," Paulhus wrote.

Today, West Virginia has some of the nation's strictest "asset tests" before it allows people to collect Medicaid and TANF benefits.

"These asset tests can discourage low-income families from saving, whether for retirement or for a child's education, and prevent them from becoming self-sufficient," Paulhus points out.

Moderating asset tests is one of WVASF's main goals.

"Without asset tests," Paulhus points out, "families would no longer have to spend down their savings in order to receive temporary assistance and would have a chance of becoming more economically secure."

Today, 23 states and the District of Columbia have already eliminated asset tests for families who apply for Medicaid.

Eliminating that test in the Mountain State, Paulhus believes, "would send a clear message to its families that saving and accumulating assets are encouraged practices."

The pamphlet is available at: http://www.wvasf.org/PDFs/SaveUpNotSpendDown.pdf.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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