Thousands in Philadelphia eligible for food assistance never sought it, group says

Posted: January 05, 2012

In hard times, it seems unthinkable that people would miss out on millions of dollars to which they're entitled.

But that's precisely what's been happening with food stamps in Philadelphia.

An estimated 180,000 city residents who were eligible for food stamps in 2010 never enrolled in the program, known as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, according to new calculations by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

That's up from 150,000 in 2008, according to coalition numbers, the latest available.

It means that amid the worst economy since the Great Depression, a group of people nearly equal in number to the population of Salt Lake City left $9,604,373 in benefits per month on the table, coalition figures show.

That money could be stimulating the local economy, benefiting both low-income people who need food as well as the merchants who sell it.

So why is this occurring?

It's a complex question, rooted in the mysteries of human nature; the impediments of bureaucracy - real or imagined; and simple ignorance.

"I never realized I was eligible," said Mica Lopez, 27, a former University City business consultant who was out of work for six months.

During that time, Lopez was taking in a small amount of money - much less than 160 percent of the poverty level, which is the upper limit for SNAP in Pennsylvania. (In New Jersey, it's 185 percent of the poverty level.)

That means that a single person in Pennsylvania can have an income of around $17,000 a year and still be able to receive food stamps.

"The program was very helpful," said Lopez, who has since found another job and no longer needs food stamps. "I was having to choose between food and medicine. That's not a choice I would want for anybody."

There were 439,245 Philadelphians on food stamps as of December 2010, coalition figures show.

But there should have been 630,196 residents receiving them, according to coalition estimates. That means that just 71 percent of eligible recipients were accessing SNAP.

"A certain percentage either don't know they're eligible or are new to living in poverty because the recession has thrown them from a stable position," said Carey Morgan, the Coalition Against Hunger's executive director.

People who have grown up in poverty learn about SNAP from friends and relatives, Morgan said. But, she added, those who recently lost their jobs in the recession don't know how to negotiate the safety-net bureaucracy - and are often loath to try.

And, experts say, the process of getting food stamps has been made more difficult by increasingly understaffed state offices.

For many people - especially the elderly - asking for food stamps is shameful.

"Embarrassment is an issue," said Allen Glicksman, director of research for the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging, a nonprofit that serves the elderly.

Older people prize self-reliance, Glicksman said.

For some older immigrants, asking for food stamps is an admission that their children aren't caring for them well enough, Glicksman added. "They also question whether, if they ask for something, the government will then take something back from them," he said.

Sometimes, the elderly believe that by accessing food stamps to which they are entitled, they are somehow taking money from others, said DeAnna Minus-Vincent, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Benefits Data Trust, which runs BenePhilly, a joint initiative of the city and the state to enroll low-income Philadelphians for government benefits.

"They feel others are more in need than they are, and say, 'Give the food stamps to someone else,' even though they're splitting pills in half and survive on one meal a day," Minus-Vincent said.

To Ronnie McHugh's mind, food stamps were for others.

But after she and her husband were laid off on the same day from the same North Carolina flooring company in 2005, McHugh, 64, of Spring City, Chester County, began a journey down a rough road.

The couple divorced soon afterward. Without her $35,000-a-year paycheck, McHugh moved to this area to be near relatives. But she found only part-time work.

Receiving $9,600 a year in Social Security payments, McHugh has been living for years below the poverty level, though she realized it only recently. Constantly low on food, McHugh frequents a food pantry, where she volunteers as a way to pay back.

Still, the pantry doesn't offer much fresh food.

At some point, McHugh happened to see a brochure that informed her that she was eligible for food stamps.

Now, she receives $126 a month in SNAP benefits, enough for fruits and vegetables and a few other foods.

"I just didn't realize I could get food stamps," McHugh said. "And the way I grew up, you didn't ask for money. I felt shame at first.

"Now, I'm eating more healthy. It's a blessing."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or

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