Just weeks before Thanksgiving, a time when belts loosen all across the country, nearly 1.8 million low-income Pennsylvanians began tightening their own.
On Nov. 1, cuts in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — often referred to as SNAP or food stamps — went into effect. As a result of reduced federal spending, Pennsylvania's program has lost some $183 million. And a family of four with no income is allotted $1.75 to spend per person per meal.
"I've seen families who were getting a couple hundred dollars down to a hundred," says Brandi Rukovena, food-pantry coordinator for North Hills Community Outreach, adding that families will have to make choices between paying for medications, making mortgage payments and having enough to eat.
Among those impacted: an estimated 766,000 children and 494,000 elderly who receive benefits in Pennsylvania.
"We already have record numbers of children" in poverty, says David Greeve, SNAP coordinator for the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. "With parents getting less benefits from the SNAP program, it really impairs their ability to provide for their children.
"I always come back to one man who was brought to tears. He was in a divorce situation and was finding himself unable to provide for his family. It hurts a person's pride and feelings of independence. It creates a sense of desperation and hopelessness."
Meanwhile, Greve says, "A lot of our seniors are forced to make a choice between getting their medicine and putting food on the table."
‘A cut no matter how you slice it'
Families or individuals who qualify for SNAP receive an ACCESS Card, which acts like a debit card at a grocery store. The card can be used to buy bread, cereal, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry and dairy products. It can't be used purchase products like alcohol or tobacco, or items like soap, diapers, household supplies or vitamins.
SNAP benefits vary in amount and are dependent on a family or individual's income. For a family of four, a household's gross monthly income cannot exceed $3,141. For individuals, the threshold is $1,533.
Food-stamp benefits were decreased because the federal stimulus plan expired. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, which administers SNAP benefits, federal funding for food stamps was decreased by 5.4 percent. For a family of four, that amounts to a decrease of $36 monthly.
The reduction reflects the last gasp of President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus plan. That year, food benefits were increased by 13 percent, based on the assumption that the cost of living would rise by that percentage over the ensuing four years. But federal cost-of-living numbers — whose accuracy is hotly contested by economists — reflected a smaller rise, and benefits were reduced accordingly.
"While Republicans will say this is a rollback of an increase, if a person [started receiving food stamps] in July, they're getting less now than they were before," says Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a nonprofit that helps people apply for benefits. "That's a cut, no matter how you slice it."
The 5.4 percent cut is "a small decrease," said Kait Gillis, a spokesperson for the state's Department of Public Welfare. "But unfortunately, it's going to affect people, and we hope our local organizations can pull together to fill the gap for citizens in need."
That won't be easy, say area food pantries and food banks.
Food banks overdrawn
Demand at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank always spikes during the holiday season. But CEO Lisa Scales predicts that the reduction in SNAP benefits will put even more pressure on the food-distribution network.
"It is definitely a huge concern for us," Scales says. "[W]e're seeing a bigger increase this November compared with past years."
The food bank's Produce to People monthly distribution in Duquesne could signal new demand in the region. Last November, 627 families showed up; this November, after the cut to SNAP benefits, the number jumped to 837.
Local food pantries, which directly serve individual neighborhoods, are also feeling the strain.
"We're extremely bare-bones as it is," says Jay Poliziani, executive director of Northside Common Ministries, whose food pantry serves roughly 1,000 people each month, making it one of the largest in the city. "We're always struggling to have enough to share with them."
Local pantries offer supplemental assistance — usually only about 10 days' worth of food, Poliziani says. And more people are in need, especially as many find themselves underemployed or with no work at all.
"Thirty-some dollars doesn't sound like a big deal to most people," Poliziani says, but for those already struggling, "it is a significant amount of money."
It's not just a problem in the city. Jim Guffey, executive director of South Hills Interfaith Ministries, says the impact is being felt in the suburbs, too. His group's November numbers are up "significantly" compared with past years — though he's not sure if that's entirely due to SNAP cuts.
"Pre-recession, we were serving 100 to 120 families a month just in our food pantry. Now, we're serving 650 to 800 families," Guffey says. "We've just not seen the recovery."
"It's not the downtrodden underneath the bridge," he adds. "[T]hese are people who are employed."
Poliziani agrees: "A lot of the folks that we're seeing — many of them used to donate to food pantries."
Further cuts in store
What makes the cuts especially troublesome, say critics, is that SNAP benefits didn't adequately meet families' needs even before the reductions took effect.
"The amount people get is based on far out-of-date data," says Regal, of Just Harvest. "It's also based on a monthly theoretical food package ... that is nutritionally inadequate. As a result, people on food stamps struggle constantly to get their money to stretch through the month."
SNAP recipients already do what they can to stretch their benefits. "I usually keep a lot of staples," says Michael Joynt, a 46-year-old single North Side man who relies on his local pantry and food stamps. "Usually pasta, rice ... and a lot of tomatoes."
And further reductions could be on the way, thanks to negotiations in Congress over a new Farm Bill (which has been the vehicle for SNAP funding). The version passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate calls for $4 billion in cuts, or .5 percent. House Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for $39 billion in cuts, or 5 percent.
That's raised protests from Democrats like Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey.
"The proposed cuts by the House ... that's a cut that's totally unacceptable," says Casey, who is seeking to not only avoid further cuts but to increase SNAP benefits to their pre-November levels. "You've got 1.7 million people [nationwide] who rely on this program and it's vital."
What's more, Casey says: "Apart from the obvious need, when you have an economy that's recovering, there's also a huge economic benefit" to SNAP spending. Since SNAP benefits get spent at local grocery stores, the money is plowed back into local businesses. Citing a 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Casey says, "When you spend [$1] on SNAP, you get [$1.75] back overall and that has a huge benefit on the economy."
Unlike the November reductions, the next round will likely not be made across-the-board. Instead, the new law is likely to cut SNAP spending by raising eligibility requirements, or taking other steps to make it harder to apply for and maintain benefits.
"To impose new cuts or any restrictions is not only unwise or mean-spirited, but it also doesn't accomplish what people advocating for those cuts say it will accomplish," Regal says. "It's not going to reduce the deficit in any meaningful way."
"There's a common misconception that all of the people who use these programs are freeloaders, and that's simply not true," adds Greeve, of the Urban League. "Some of these people don't want be on these benefits. And it would be greatly to their benefit if they weren't just portrayed all the time as lazy, when these people are anything but."