Anti-hunger coalition finds benefits underused in Pennsylvania

Posted: March 29, 2013

At a time when people are criticized for accruing government benefits, the federal programs designed to feed the hungry are in fact underused.

That's one of the findings of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger's new report, "State of Hunger: Pennsylvania 2013."

Though participation in the food-stamp program (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is soaring, there are still nearly a half-million Pennsylvanians eligible for SNAP who do not use the program, the report said.

"The biggest disconnect," said Julie Zaebst, interim director of the coalition, "is that there's lots of talk about waste, fraud, and abuse in federal nutrition programs that are actually undersubscribed.

"Yet our public conversation revolves around people who get benefits who aren't eligible. It's honestly baffling."

To be sure, SNAP levels are rising in the commonwealth. Overall, 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receive SNAP benefits, coalition figures show. The number of households struggling with hunger in the state increased by more than 50 percent between 1996 and 2011. One in eight Pennsylvanians is food-insecure, meaning that in the last year a person had limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

Zaebst said biases and stereotypes underlie many people's perceptions of programs like SNAP.

In fact, SNAP fraud in the commonwealth is less than 1 percent, among the best rates in the country, Zaebst said.

Often people don't take advantage of benefits because they don't know they're eligible, Zaebst said. Others are embarrassed to ask for help. Sometimes, the bureaucracy involved in receiving aid is too daunting.

Though conservatives complain about increasing numbers of Pennsylvanians becoming permanently dependent on government help - due to the recession and the subsequent "jobless" recovery - 75 percent of people who use SNAP leave the program within two years, the report said.

Ultimately, hunger creates $6 billion in annual health costs and lost productivity statewide, the report said.

The number of individuals receiving SNAP between 2007 (the start of the recession) and last year increased by more than 100 percent in Montgomery, Chester, and Bucks Counties, the report said. In Delaware County, the number increased by 56 percent and in Philadelphia, by 43 percent.

The greatest increases in SNAP use in the area were in the richest counties. When the recession hit, many well-off people suddenly found themselves foundering - losing their jobs and being forced to seek help they never needed before, Zaebst added.

"Those who lost their jobs here starting in 2008 are still looking," said Phoebe Kitson-Davis, program manager at the Chester County Food Bank. "And it gets harder to make ends meet, because the cost of living is so high in Chester County."

In Philadelphia, where more than 470,000 people receive SNAP benefits, the increase in recipients wasn't as great because so many people were already on SNAP, Zaebst said.

Statewide, Cumberland County had the greatest increase in people on SNAP, shooting up 147 percent between 2007 and 2012. The loss of manufacturing jobs - especially those connected to the auto industry - accounted for much of the rise, said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Harrisburg.

Although the need for SNAP is increasing, Congress still plans to cut it, the report pointed out.

The typical SNAP recipient in Pennsylvania gets $127 in food assistance per month, but a family of four will lose around $25 a month in benefits starting in fall, the report shows, because of federal cuts. And Congress is considering still more cuts that could drop as many as five million Americans from the program.

The report cites other federal programs that are undersubscribed.

Just 44 percent of low-income children who eat school lunch also receive school breakfast, even though they're entitled to it. That may be because not enough schools make an effort to maximize student participation, the report said.

And just 56 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians receive WIC benefits, designed to get nutritious food to low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, infants, and children up to age 5 who face nutritional risks, the report says. Not enough federal money is earmarked for WIC, which is also suffering because of the federal cuts known as the sequester, Zaebst said.

To view the full report and interactive map on hunger in Pennsylvania, go to www.philly.com/pahunger


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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