Pennsylvania nonprofits work to help those facing food stamp restrictions
February 8, 2016 12:05 AM
Carla Payne-Harrison, left, Just Harvest's Food Stamp specialist, discusses how the organization is preparing for thousands of people facing food stamp restrictions in the coming weeks. At right is Kalena Thomhave.
By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Western Pennsylvania nonprofits are hustling to blunt a clamp-down this spring on food stamp benefits, promoting volunteer work and other provisions that can keep low-income households eligible for the aid.
More than 9,500 residents of Allegheny County are among some 48,000 Pennsylvanians who could lose the help by June 1, according to state figures and Just Harvest, a South Side anti-hunger organization. Those beneficiaries fall under a renewed three-month limit for many unemployed or underemployed adults ages 18 to 50 who aren’t disabled or raising minor children.
“We think this is a terrible policy, that it’s based on a faulty understanding of poor people’s lives,” said Ken Regal, executive director at Just Harvest. He said people in the demographic tend to be “the least-employable, last-hired, first-fired people in society,” often left jobless when the economy picks up.
While they may not be disabled, Mr. Regal said, they struggle frequently with mental health problems, poor language skills or other hurdles that make employment a steep challenge.
Defenders argue the federal benefits cap weeds out undeserving recipients while encouraging others to be more active, even if some can complete only menial tasks. Beneficiaries can retain the assistance if they meet a 20-hour weekly work requirement, whether through a paid job, a training program or volunteerism.
“People are always better off financially when they’re working than when they’re on food stamps alone. My personal opinion is that it’s time” for the rule, said Robert Doar, a one-time commissioner of welfare programs under former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Job markets have rebounded so much over the last several years, Mr. Doar said, that the work standard should diminish hunger “by helping more people get into employment.”
Pennsylvanians last faced the three-month limit in 2008, part of a 1996 welfare reform law that toughened restrictions on benefits, according to the state Department of Human Services. The state’s elevated unemployment rates over the last seven years triggered a broad suspension of the rule, which had halted food stamp benefits for about 13,700 people statewide in 2007, department figures show.
The cap is resuming across much of Pennsylvania now that joblessness has tumbled, although areas with persistent high unemployment — including McKeesport, Philadelphia and Fayette and Somerset counties — remain exempt from the rule. The three-month clock will start ticking March 1, following official notices mailed to beneficiaries.
“We are going to need to step up and provide more food to people in need,” said Lisa Scales, CEO at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne. She estimated her group could see demand spike 5 percent to 10 percent in its 11-county service area when benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, constrict.
Meeting that surge will demand extra fundraising, Ms. Scales said. Further, she said, the food bank and its partner agencies are scouting volunteer opportunities that will help people meet the 20-hour weekly minimum and retain their SNAP benefits.
Those who could lose benefits amount to about 2.5 percent of the 1.88 million SNAP recipients statewide. Their advocates said many are reluctant to speak for publication, but one recipient reached by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said he understands the work standard.
A part-time worker at a local sports venue, he said his other gig as a Just Harvest volunteer helped him keep SNAP eligibility. He called the nonprofit a life-saver.
“I enjoy all the company down there, and I’m meeting new friends there I never knew existed,” said the man, who asked not to be named.
Just Harvest workers said they also will help qualifying SNAP enrollees request medical exemptions from the benefits cap. Among its awareness efforts, the group is assembling a database of existing and newly created volunteer roles that would help SNAP recipients known as Abawds — able-bodied adults without dependents — hold on to the support.
Listings should be available by mid-February online at justharvest.org and through PA 2-1-1 Southwest, said Kalena Thomhave, a fellow at Just Harvest. She said the goal is to have at least 200 organizations participate.
“It’s been a really good response. A lot of organizations already need volunteers,” Ms. Thomhave said.
Nationally, 500,000 to 1 million people could lose SNAP benefits because of the rule change, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. The analysis found they receive an average of $150 to $170 a month in food assistance.
Still, it’s too early to know precisely how much food banks may feel any fallout, said Richard Morris, housing director at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. He said a regulation often needs to be in place about 90 days before its effects become clear.
“Once the policy begins to settle and people begin to be cut off, then you will begin to see some change,” Mr. Morris said.
Staff writer Kate Giammarise contributed. Adam Smeltz: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2625 or on Twitter @asmeltz.
Correction: The photo caption in an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Kalena Thomhave.
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