A little-noticed provision of the budget bill could force state welfare agencies to send out an army of inspectors to estimate the value of used clothing, old furniture and kitchen items in the homes of welfare applicants.
Welfare experts said this week they are concerned about the impact the bill, passed by the House and Senate, could have on the local agencies. But a top official of the Department of Health and Human Sevices said it was unlikely the department would issue regulations to enforce the law that way.
The provision says that a family will be ineligible for welfare under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program if its assets exceed $1,000 excluding a home and a car.
Under existing law and regulations, states have broad discretion to set the asset tests as high as $2,000 and to exclude not only a home and car as assets, but also furniture, clothing and other personal effects.
Scott Bunton, staff director of the committee on human resources of the National Governors Association, said that the new provision appears to restrict the states and could mean that "welfare agencies are going to have to go in and evaluate dishes, old furniture, pots and pans and clothing." He said the administration, which sought the new provision, and the House and Senate "are trying to make the assets test as tough as possible."
"We want to get this clarified because the expense of making these evaluations is going to be prohibitive and because it seems fair to let people keep their pots and pans and sheets and mattresses" even if they are on welfare, he said.
Other welfare experts said it isn't clear whether HHS could change the plain language of the law by issuing a regulation exlcuding household items, even if it wants to.
However, Linda McMahon, associate commissioner of social security for the AFDC program, said, "It is not our intention to get into forcing them to count chickens" or evaluate old furniture and used clothes.
She said she expects that HHS will make clear, by one means or another, possibly by regulation, that states can continue to exclude clothes, furniture and other personal items. She said she believes HHS has the right to interpret the language of the congressional provision in regulations.
"I don't think what we're down to is that people have to sett their basic furniture or burn it for heat" before they can get welfare, she said.
She added that somewhere down the line, if it came to a question of valuable antiques and Persian rugs, the states could be forced to count them in toting up the $1,000 in assests, but any such action if off in the future.