The reach for help is longer this Thanksgiving

Feasts give way to dollar-by-dollar survival, despair for region's 'forgotten population'



Today, needy families throughout the region might be enjoying a Thanksgiving respite from hunger, thanks to donated turkeys and food baskets, but the feast will give way to daily dollar-by-dollar survival and despair for the reluctant members of the "forgotten population."

That impoverished group of people stands to fight more battles without bullets as federal and state governments continue reducing benefits for poor Americans, including a Nov. 1 cut in food stamps and the continued red tape, program limits and waiting lists.

Now, a bill passed by the U.S. House would reduce growth of food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $39 billion over 10 years by paring the number of eligible recipients from 46.5 million to 34 million. The bill would tighten food stamp eligibility, especially for single, healthy adults. The U.S. Senate bill would shrink SNAP by $4 billion in the next decade.

"By stopping benefits from going out to lotto winners, fraudsters, and others who take advantage of the loopholes in the SNAP program, we can strengthen it for the families and children who truly need it," stated U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who supported the House bill.

Also supporting food stamp cuts, U.S. Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said: "As House and Senate lawmakers work on a final bill, I'm focused on closing those loopholes that have resulted in the doubling of the number of Americans on food stamps in the last decade and targeting the resources to needy families. I understand the view that existing federal food assistance programs are not capable of solving the problem of chronic hunger."

PG graphic: U.S. poverty guidelines, 2013
(Click image for larger version)

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 boosted food stamps during the recession but expired Nov. 1, cutting food stamps by $36 a month for a family of four. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Tuesday that such cuts in food stamps would eliminate 93 million meals for poor Pennsylvanians.

Currently about 46.5 million Americans, including 16 million children -- nearly 1 in 4 American children -- qualify for food stamps.

"This is a war on children because so many are the recipients of these benefits," said Andrew D. Racine of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "They are taking food out of the mouths of poor children. They have to stand up and own that.

"It's just mean-spirited," he said. "I think it is very difficult to ignore the fact that public policy has done wonders with respect to decreasing poverty among the elderly in America. It works beautifully. ... We need Social Security for children."

***

Jessica Peace, 25, and sons Braydon, 5, and Noah, 2, are homeless, splitting time between her mother's house in McDonald and a friend's. She now works as a Santa's helper at South Hills Village.

"I feel like the government punishes people like me instead of trying to help us out," Ms. Peace said. "It's so hard to find help, and it's so hard to live on a daily basis. I have two boys, and we've been going through hell."

Her food stamps dropped from $519 a month to $400. Ms. Peace said she has subsidized day-care for her sons and earns $500 to $600 a month, with a monthly income and food stamp total short of $1,000. She still owes utility bills from a previous residence and is contending with fibromyalgia, endometriosis and depression.

"I put myself in this situation," she said, noting she recently left an abusive relationship. "But I want people to be aware that people out here are struggling. I want people to know how hard this is. Spend one day in my life and see if you can make it work."

***

Patricia L. Valentine, executive deputy director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services' Integrated Program Service, said 134 Head Start slots for preschool children have been eliminated this year due to budget cuts and sequestration, with enrollment now at 1,492.

But the department's Community Services budget, including many programs for the poor, has dropped by nearly $21 million since 2008, or by 29 percent, with further cuts expected from sequestration. State cuts in recent years also slashed budget totals.

Fewer resources and an increased need for services leads to "the decision between serving fewer people or decreasing the scope and intensity of the services we provide," she said.

"It's frustrating, and what we're seeing is a weakening of the structure of the system."

Limited space in homeless shelters, waiting lists for subsidized housing and a three-week waiting list for people seeking emergency help for drug and alcohol addiction represent the impact of budget cuts.

"I could go on and on why each system is a concern for me," Ms. Valentine said. "The real problem is the multiple needs people have that sort of become a crushing weight after awhile -- addiction disorders, mental illness, homelessness and children. It builds up."

***

James Bachenheimer, 32, of New Kensington has a heart missing a chamber, resulting in six open-heart surgeries. He's on the heart-transplant list. He's supporting a daughter on $709 a month in federal Supplemental Security Disability Income and $189 in food stamps -- reduced by $11 Nov. 1. His health condition has prevented him from holding a job.

His low income prevents him from affording an apartment, and he's had vehicles repossessed. "It's upsetting and it's frustrating, but it's the hand I was dealt," Mr. Bachenheimer said.

Yet, often at the grocery store, he said, people look at him with anger when he hands the cashier his food stamp ACCESS card. "They don't see the misspending in Washington, but they see me in the grocery line using my card for food for my family," he said. "I'll work if my health allows it, but unfortunately the mind is willing but the body isn't."

***

Hunger-Free Pennsylvania said food banks previously served 700,000 of the 1.7 million impoverished people statewide. But federal and state funding has been reduced to $38 million, and that, with an additional $115 million in private donations, is enough to serve just 500,000, or fewer than 1 in 3 people who qualify for assistance, executive director Sheila Christopher said.

But the need for the food banks is rising.

"We are seeing an incredibly significant increase in need for our regular clients and the community at large," said Matthew Bolton, director of the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry at 828 Hazelwood Ave. "It's rising, and we're fielding calls in the double digits every day from families who need emergency and supplemental food."

South Hills Interfaith Ministries, with food pantries in Bethel Park and Whitehall, has gone from 100 to 150 families a year (300 people) to 700 to 800 families (1,500 people) this year, said executive director Jim Guffey, who added that his food inventory is the lowest of his seven years with the agency.

On Tuesday, Mr. Casey urged Congress to support a bill to increase emergency assistance to food banks "struggling to keep up with demand."

***

Tory Marshalek, 35, of Sharpsburg, with an 8-year-old daughter, continues working without health insurance despite suffering from ovarian and uterine cancers. She said her last visit to a doctor was June 7, 2011. Her medical debt of $350,000 has ruined her credit rating, blocking her from qualifying for housing, utilities or loans. She lost a store-management job in 2011 when she underwent treatment for uterine cancer, and never recovered financially.

PG graphic: Allegheny County programs for the poor
(Click image for larger version)

Adding to the challenge, she also cares for a 24-year-old brother with severe epilepsy. Total food stamps they receive has dropped $50 a month to $200.

"Me having cancer was the worst that could have happened because that's what screwed me up," she said, noting the stress and effects from cancer. "I have good days and bad days. And it's fantastic to wash my hair and see it fall out in clumps."

***

Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said $5 billion in annual food stamp benefits were cut when ARRA expired Nov. 1. Nearly 20 percent of food stamp recipients have no other income -- neither Social Security, public assistance or unemployment benefits. "So those are high-test dollars in their income, and they really feel it when they are cut.

"Back in 1979, if you were working full time at minimum wage, you would be at 100 percent of the poverty level," he said. "That's no longer the case. Minimum wage has not kept with the cost of living. It's a frayed safety net."

Curtis Skinner of the National Center for Children in Poverty said, "The real travesty is the [$7.25-an-hour] minimum wage is below the poverty limit." The nation, he said, has the economic power to match what other high-income nations do successfully to reduce poverty.

"I have to say we're a little pessimistic in the near term," Mr. Skinner said. "I think the deficit reduction is dominating the political debate and the sequester has been harmful, with the economy growing at a sluggish rate.

"There's not much of a constituency out there advocating for poor people," he said. "They are kind of the forgotten population, and we suspect the poverty rates will continue to be pretty high in the next few years."


David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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