By Angela Valvano
Older Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly want to age in their homes and communities for as long as they are able. Because of increases in the cost of living, those on fixed incomes have had a difficult few years. But there is a simple way to lend those seniors a hand – a program that already exists to provide them modest financial relief. And now is the right time to expand it.
Pennsylvania’s Property Tax/Rent Rebate program provides a rebate check to eligible Pennsylvanians age 65 and older, widows and widowers age 50 and older, and adults with disabilities. To qualify, the upper-income limit is $35,000 a year for homeowners and $15,000 a year for renters, and half of Social Security income is excluded. The rebate amount for qualified homeowners ranges from $250 to $975, depending on area of residence and income level. The amount for renters is $500 or $650, depending on income.
Because the rebate amount has not been adjusted for inflation in recent years, the value of the rebate is shrinking compared to household expenses. And because the upper-income limit has not been adjusted for inflation, the number of households who receive the rebate has dropped year after year.
Gov. Josh Shapiro and some members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly have proposed that the state help older adults by permanently increasing and expanding the program in Pennsylvania.
The proposal, which has garnered bipartisan support, would increase the maximum eligibility income limits for the property tax/rent rebate program for both homeowners and renters, which would open the program up to an additional 175,000 Pennsylvanians.
The proposal also increases the maximum rebate amount to $1,000, up from the current $650. Finally, the income cap for the program would be tied to the cost of living, so it would increase in the future based on changes in inflation. Despite the one-year bump in payments approved by the legislature last year, we expect 175,000 fewer rebates than the peak year and rebate amounts that don’t match today’s costs. That leaves many older Pennsylvanians at risk of losing their homes.
Prioritizing such a permanent expansion of the Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program in Gov.-elect Shapiro’s first budget would be strategically advantageous for a few reasons:
- It helps Pennsylvanians pay their bills and lifts up local economies. The program, in its current form, already benefits seniors and people with disabilities with more than 400,000 people receiving rebates each year. The rebate helps those families make ends meet, many of them on fixed incomes. It is also an indirect investment in local businesses because those families are able to spend more on other necessary items when some of the burden of their monthly mortgage or rent payment is alleviated.
- There is strong bipartisan support for the program, and there was bipartisan support for an expansion of the program during budget negotiations last year. The expansion of the program proposed by Governor Tom Wolf in last year’s budget garnered bipartisan support. For example, Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, the chair of the Senate Aging & Youth Committee said after the vote: “The increased funds for the Property Tax and Rent Rebate Program in the recently approved state budget is a much-needed boost to senior citizens and those on fixed incomes. With inflation and the cost of goods, services, and living going up at rates we haven’t seen in decades, this funding will help our seniors stay in the homes they love.”
- A rebate expansion is easily implemented and does not require a new program or new bureaucracy. After last year’s rebate was passed in early July, bonus rebates were processed for more than 361,000 people before the end of August.
Passing a permanent expansion of the Property Tax/Rent Rebate program should be a no-brainer for state lawmakers.
At a time of year when Republicans and Democrats in Harrisburg are at odds as budget negotiations play out, this is an issue where they can show constituents that there are still priorities where they can find common ground.
Angela Valvano is the executive director of the advocacy group Better PA.
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