The daily and sometimes painful choices made by parents in the food-stamp program like Gaines-Turner - who said that she or her husband might skip a meal late in the month to make sure the children have enough - are the mosaic that tends to get lost in the big picture over two recent cuts in federal nutrition aid.
A new farm bill - which funds the Supplement Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, as the current incarnation of the anti-hunger program is known - was signed into law by President Obama earlier this month. It is expected to reduce benefits by $8.7 billion over the next decade, even as U.S. poverty levels are at a generational high.
And the cuts are not spread evenly.
In fact, the food-stamp ax is falling a lot harder here in Pennsylvania because the state is one of only 15 (plus D.C.) that had offered a program that Congress ultimately eliminated, known informally as "heat and eat." It's a complicated formula that gives an added boost to residents of states where heating bills are also high.
The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger crunched the numbers after Congress passed the bill last month and estimated that 175,000 households across Pennsylvania would lose an average of $65 a month, and that because of the way that the benefits are calculated, it will likely harm seniors and people with disabilities the most. Many of the recipients live here in Philadelphia - which has the highest rate of deep poverty of any large city in America.
The SNAP reductions in the final farm bill ended up being a lot less than a Republican proposal that had passed in the House and would have ended benefits for 4 million households. But that's small consolation for activists who say too many families were already scrimping to get through the month before these latest cuts.
"It's shameful that people are playing politics - there is nothing good about these food-stamp cuts, and it does not help our country at all," said Marianna Chilton, a professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health, who runs its Center for Hunger-Free Communities. She said the way the cuts fall on the old and the disabled reflects poorly "on how the nation treats its most vulnerable."
Julie Zaebst, of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said her group has been analyzing the impact on some local SNAP recipients and finding that for some individuals the reductions will be harsh. In one case, she said, coalition workers identified a 93-year-old woman in West Philadelphia who had been getting $160 a month but is slated to drop to just $19 after the cuts take effect later this year.
Another senior targeted for a major cutback is Barbara Skinner, of Olney, who retired as a health-care aide four years ago and lives on less than $700 a month in Social Security, minus $300 she contributes in rent for living with her daughter. Her $200 in monthly food stamps was cut to $189 last November, and the coalition believes she will be further cut to only $53 under the new formula out of Washington.
"It would have a big impact," said Skinner, 70, adding philosophically: "I would be grateful for the $53. I would just thank God for that, because it's better than nothing."
Other recipients and anti-hunger activists are not as forgiving. Some question why hunger relief is targeted for multiple cuts when other subsidies aid people who are better off to begin with. Most notably, the new farm bill found cash to increase government subsidies to some dairy farmers, and it contained some corporate-welfare pork.
"Any politician who votes to cut food stamps has no heart," said Imani Sullivan, 35, a mother of two in Darby, Delaware County, who is unemployed, living on disability and trying now with great difficulty to stretch her food budget to the end of the month. "Your child has enough to eat, you have enough money . . . we don't have that."
Sullivan said her monthly SNAP benefits, currently about $300 a month, were slashed by $36 in November. She said she tries to buy quality meat and produce for her kids but can only get to the better-stocked supermarkets occasionally, when her mom takes her. At the end of every month, she said, "I penny- pinch . . . I try to make stews and soups and stretch the food."
Activists like Zaebst note that they are working with the state Department of Public Welfare, which runs the program in Pennsylvania, to delay the new cuts as long as possible - since the farm bill allows up to five months to phase out the "heat and eat" benefit - and to ease the impact as much as possible. In Washington, at least 72 Democratic lawmakers from the northern states most affected by the new cuts have signed a letter seeking to delay implementation until after the end of the current brutal winter.
Advocates seeking to restore some of the SNAP reductions are also emphasizing the toll that the bill will take on small businesses, since studies have shown that every dollar of food stamps generates $1.72 of economic activity, much of it for local grocers.
Dave McCorkle, of the Philadelphia Food Merchants Association, said a major supermarket in Philadelphia might record 25 percent to 40 percent of its monthly sales on the EBT ACCESS card that includes SNAP as well as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.
But the biggest impact will come at households like Gaines-Turner's home in Frankford, in the final days of a long month.
"I'm careful about using coupons, and I try to go on double coupon days," she said, "but $65 a month is a big cut."
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