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Unemployed Americans are cashing in their pensions to buy groceries because they can't get food stamps to tide them over to the next job as long as they have retirement savings.

Workers who are forced to dip into their nontraditional pensions such as Individual Retirement Accounts pay a steep penalty and may easily spend more on taxes than they would collect in benefits during a short spell on food stamps."It is a terrible personal tragedy that Americans are forced to spend away their future," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"We should not take the last shred of dignity away from men and women who deserve the right to keep the money they have worked so hard to save for retirement," Leahy said.

Under federal law, food-stamp recipients may have no more than $2,000 to $3,000 in liquid assets, such as money in the bank, and luxuries such as expensive cars. The program helps 27 million Americans buy groceries and provides an average monthly benefit of $70. Half of all recipients leave the rolls within six months.

The Agriculture Department does not consider traditional company pension plans an asset. But unemployed workers are required to liquidate their IRAs to qualify for food stamps.

Another increasingly popular retirement plan, the 401 is not considered an asset. Some advocates for the poor, including David Super of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, argue that USDA's policy has not been clear and that as a result, some unemployed workers were wrongly told to spend down their pensions.

Also, some companies do not allow laid-off workers to keep their 401 pensions, forcing them to roll their money into an IRA or risk paying a penalty.

Leahy, who is looking into the situation, said USDA's memos and regulations on the subject are "barely intelligible." The department cannot expect local welfare caseworkers to do their jobs until it starts writing its rules in "plain English," he said.

Leahy's committee and USDA have no figures on the number of unemployed workers who may be affected by the department's pension policies. Other welfare programs, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children, also count nontraditional pensions as assets.

But Super and Byron Charlton, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, believe thousands of Americans may potentially be affected. Rep. Robert A. Borski, D-Pa., said he hears from a "whole host of people who are running into this problem," while the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, an advocacy organization that aids the unemployed, logs five to six calls a day on the issue.

"It contradicts the whole philosophy of a safety-net program," says Charlton.

When Evonne Tisdale applied for benefits, for example, she was told to cash in her pension. Laid off from her job as an insurance claims supervisor in Philadelphia, she had exhausted her unemployment benefits and moved in with her mother to save money.