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Foodstamp Cuts Impact Families and Children in Every PA County

7:48 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

By Chris Lilienthal, Third and State

A major funding cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) took effect November 1, impacting 1.8 million Pennsylvanians.

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is our nation’s first line of defense against hunger and a powerful tool to help keep families out of poverty. Benefits are modest, offering many Pennsylvania families a crucial bridge in this slow economic recovery.

The November 1 cut is the result of an expiring provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that temporarily boosted SNAP to strengthen the economy and ease hardship in the wake of the recession. The cut totals $5 billion nationwide for the remaining months of the federal fiscal year (November 2013-September 2014), including $183 million in Pennsylvania.

Nearly 66 cents of every dollar cut in Pennsylvania ($120 million) will reduce the benefits of households with children. Another 37 cents out of every dollar cut ($68 million) will reduce benefits for Pennsylvanians who are elderly or living with disabilities. Click here or on the map below to view how many people, households, and children are impacted by the cut to SNAP in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

PA County Map

In addition to helping to feed hungry families, SNAP is one of the fastest, most effective ways to spur the economy. Every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity. Benefits boost demand for farm produce, helping to keep our nation’s farms strong.

The cuts may force some Pennsylvanians to choose between food and other priorities. Ruth Vesa, a 78-year-old widow in Pittsburgh, said in August when the cuts were announced: “I’m very thankful for the food stamp program because it enables me to have good food to eat and not be worried about my medical prescriptions. Otherwise I would have to make a choice. Any cuts to the program would be hurtful to me personally.”

For a family of three, the cut will likely mean a reduction of $29 a month — $319 for the remaining 11 months of the fiscal year. This is a serious loss for families whose benefits, after this cut, will average less than $1.40 per person per meal. It is the equivalent of taking away 21 meals per month for a family of four or 16 meals for a family of three.

That’s the bad news. The even worse news is that additional cuts to SNAP could be on the way. In September, the U.S. House narrowly approved legislation that would cut $39 billion in SNAP funding over the next decade. The Senate has not taken up the bill.

If enacted, a cut that large would deny SNAP to approximately 3.8 million low-income people in 2014 and to an average of nearly 3 million people each year over the coming decade, according to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates. Those who would be thrown off the program include many low-income children, seniors, and families that work for low wages.

Nearly 1.8 Million in PA Will See Food Assistance Cut

10:11 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

By Chris Lilienthal, Third and State

SNAP helps nearly 1 in 3 U.S. children get enough to eat. All of them will see their benefits cut in November.Nutrition assistance is our nation’s first line of defense against hunger and a powerful tool to help keep families out of poverty. Come November, this critical federal assistance will be cut, making it that much more difficult for 1.8 million Pennsylvanians to put food on the table for themselves and their families.

The November cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as food stamps, will impact all of the more than 47 million Americans, including 22 million children, who receive benefits. It will likely amount to a reduction of $29 a month in benefits for a family of three — $319 in all through September 2014. This is a serious loss for families whose benefits, after this cut, will average less than $1.40 per person per meal.

To put the cut in some perspective, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates it will equal out to 21 lost meals per month for a family of four or 16 lost meals per month for a family of three.

A majority of those who receive SNAP benefits are children and the elderly, for whom food assistance is essential. SNAP helps nearly one in three children in the U.S. get enough to eat. All 22 million of them will see their benefits cut in November.

Elderly Pennsylvanians will also be affected. People like Ruth Vesa, a 78-year-old widow in Pittsburgh and Just Harvest client, who said: “I’m very thankful for the food stamp program because it enables me to have good food to eat and not be worried about my medical prescriptions. Otherwise I would have to make a choice. Any cuts to the program would be hurtful to me personally.”

In addition to helping to feed hungry families, SNAP is one of the fastest, most effective ways to spur the economy. Every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity. Benefits boost demand for farm produce, helping to keep our nation’s farms strong.

So why is it being cut? The cut is the result of an expiring provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that temporarily boosted SNAP benefits to strengthen the economy and ease hardship in the wake of the recession. This small increase has been a lifeline for many Pennsylvanians, a majority of whom work but earn low wages. It has allowed them to stay afloat during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Even though the economy is still weak and families are still struggling, Congress has not acted to extend the modest increase in nutrition assistance beyond November. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives could vote on cutting the program by $20 billion or more in the coming weeks. If enacted, such cuts could leave many families and their children without assistance to put food on the table when they need it most.

That is the wrong path for the wellbeing of our nation, the health of our families, and the growth of our economy.

Diversion Politics and Factual Errors with ‘Americans for a Tiny Sliver of Rich People’

11:32 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

SNAP - Foodstamps

The latest part of the safety net under Koch attack.

Jennifer Stefano, the Pennsylvania director of Americans for Prosperity, published an op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News Friday — the latest salvo in an organized right-wing assault on nutrition assistance and other safety net spending.

The op-ed claims that the number of Americans who receive some kind of subsidized food assistance is at more than 101 million and “has surpassed the number of full-time private-sector workers in our country.” Actually, there are 114 million private-sector workers in the United States, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data for June 2013, but who’s counting.

Americans for Prosperity is a conservative advocacy group funded in part by the Koch Brothers. It is the 1% looking out for the interests of the 1%.

As I noted, Jennifer Stefano’s op-ed is part of a larger campaign to cut safety net spending. Food stamp spending in the current slow economy has temporarily risen to about 0.5% of GDP, from about 0.33% of GDP in the early 1980s recession. Of course, that recession was much shorter and shallower nationally than the recent Great Recession.

Today food assistance remains well targeted: 85% of households participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, have gross incomes below the poverty line; 98.5% have disposable (or “net”) incomes below the poverty line. SNAP provides only $1.50 per person per meal and is scheduled to drop to $1.30 per person per meal in November. (Stefano has nothing to say about the preservation of farm subsidies for agribusiness — the most generous “food program” in the United States.)

Stefano presents the temporary growth in food assistance as a “kitchen table” issue. Let’s put it in perspective. Another kitchen table issue is the dramatic decline in the share of the economic pie going to the vast 99% of Americans — because the share going to the top 1% has risen by about 10 percentage points, The temporary increase in food stamps spending is thus about 1/50 the size of the not-so-temporary increase in the share of income going to the Koch Brothers and, I’m guessing, other funders of Americans for Prosperity.

Stefano’s piece is part of a well-oiled effort to distract middle-class families from the real cause of their economic struggles. When you look at the facts, that cause is not rising taxes or spending on social programs. It’s the rise in economic inequality (and, to a lesser degree, the fall in taxes paid by the more affluent).

Here’s hoping that Pennsylvanians and Americans will keep their eyes on the ball and not fall for the obfuscations of groups like Stefano’s.

Read the rest of this entry →

PA Must Reads: High Unemployment Strains the Safety Net and Underwater Mortgages

7:50 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports this morning on the continued strain that high unemployment is putting on the safety net in Pennsylvania.

There are 1.8 million people in Pennsylvania so short of cash that they qualify for food stamps. That translates to 14.4 percent of the state’s population receiving at least part of their food budget from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The slow economic recovery from the Great Recession is not yet translating into personal recoveries…

Pennsylvania does not keep unemployment trend records on a month-by-month basis but in the fourth quarter of 2011, 33 percent of the state’s unemployed had been out of work for more than six months and the state’s labor force participation rate was 62.8 percent, lower than in the fourth quarter of any of the previous three years…

When Just Harvest advertised a part-time job paying $12 an hour to help people apply for food stamps, the agency was inundated with applications — including people with doctorates seeking a job that just required some education past high school.

Laura Tobin Goddard, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center in Enola, Cumberland County, said food pantries around Harrisburg are still reporting seeing a lot of new faces even 2 1/2 years after the recovery began.

Her agency, which is also a nonprofit that helps people access government programs and directs them to food pantries, received 500 calls in 2007 from people seeking assistance. Now it receives 100 calls a month.

Those of you betting that 2012 will mark the year the housing market in Pennsylvania came roaring back need to pay up. The Pocono Record reports on the percentage of borrowers that owe more on their homes than those homes are worth if they were put up for sale.

Almost half the homes in Monroe County are worth less than what homeowners owe on their mortgages, according to a recent study.

That’s the highest “underwater” rate in the state, according to data from RealtyTrac.

The data show nearly one-third of all Monroe County homes are seriously underwater. That’s where borrowers owe at least 25 percent more on their mortgages than their property is worth…

By comparison, about 27 percent of homeowners across the state are, on average, underwater.

PA Must Reads: Asset Test Snark, School Police and Property Taxes

10:34 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

Lancaster Rep. Mike Sturla was quoted in Capitolwire (paywall) on a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) proposal to limit access to SNAP, or food stamp, benefits to households with fewer than $5,500 in assets:

“We’re going to take the concept of the safety net and flip it and tell people they have to impoverish themselves before they get the benefits.”

This quote caught the eye of the Commonwealth Foundation’s Nathan Benefield, who noted in response:

Just to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding the outspoken representative, I Googled the definition of impoverish and came up with “To reduce to poverty; make poor.”

Indeed! Welfare programs like food stamps were designed to help poor people, and the administration’s policy will work to ensure it serves only poor people.

As I often tell interns and students, Google is a powerful tool, but it’s only as powerful as your own understanding of a policy debate. A key concern with the DPW’s asset test, as Rep. Sturla correctly notes, is that it could potentially force low-income families who have experienced a job loss or a serious illness to spend down their meager assets in order to qualify for food assistance. Forcing hungry low-income families to spend down their savings makes them more vulnerable to having unexpected expenses that could trigger a mortgage default, eviction or loss of access to transportation. In other words, the less savings a family has, the greater the risk that an unexpected bill will make it harder for them to get back on their feet and off of public assistance.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted Thursday that the DPW expects some 4,000 people to be denied SNAP benefits and the people impacted appear to have little resemblance to the millionaires and billionaires that fund the Commonwealth Foundation.  Surely, there is a way to prevent instant lottery millionaires from collecting SNAP benefits that doesn’t also include making little old ladies go hungry.

A total of 4,000 households are expected to lose their food stamps under the revised proposal by the state Department of Public Welfare…

In Pennsylvania, people can access SNAP if they make 160 percent of the federal poverty level or less. For a family of four, the poverty level is $22,350…

Mr. Sturla said the proposal would discourage poor people from saving.

Karen Naeser, 63, of Richmond in Tioga County, said her assets surpass the level that would disqualify her from food stamps. Ms. Naeser, who is disabled, began receiving food stamps this summer after losing her job as a receptionist at a personal care home. She said she has more than $9,000 in stocks and uses her savings to pay her taxes.

“I’m going to have to dip into the money, and then after it’s gone, what am I supposed to do?” she said. “What am I supposed to do when something happens to the furniture, the hot water heater?”

A director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh organization that addresses poverty and hunger in Allegheny County, said the proposal would make it harder for poor people to weather such unexpected bills.

“The kinds of emergencies middle-class people use their savings on make poor people destitute,” said Ken Regal, co-director of the organization. “What the asset test fundamentally says to poor people is unless you’re risking destitution, we don’t believe you really need help.”

In other news this morning, the Philadelphia School District is expected to layoff 90 police officers today.

With a $61 million shortfall to bridge by the end of June, the Philadelphia School District will let go about 90 school police officers Friday, according to a source familiar with the plan.

Finally, a handy graphic of proposed property tax increases in Lancaster County (full story here).

PA Must Reads: Asset Tests, Layoffs and The Race To Give Away Tax Dollars To Big Oil

2:00 pm in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

Oil Ram

Oil Ram (photo: kqedquest, flickr)

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare submitted its final proposal to the federal Food and Nutrition Service for an asset test on SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps).

As the Department explains in its proposal:

The Department of Public Welfare has submitted its final plan to the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to reinstate the asset test for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). The final proposal sets the limits at $5,500 for households (age 59 and under) and $9,000 for households with older Pennsylvanians (age 60 and above) or disabled individuals…The SNAP program takes into account both income and assets when determining an individual or family’s eligibility. Certain assets are exempt from the measurement, including but not limited to one’s home, primary vehicle, educational savings accounts and pension plans.

We are pleased the thresholds have been adjusted up to account for inflation but remain deeply skeptical of the efficacy of the proposed asset test. Asset tests are costly to administer and discourage families from saving. It is counterproductive to force low-income families who have suffered a job loss because of the economy or a major illness to spend down their assets in order to qualify for food assistance. This policy is especially harmful in today’s economy with unemployment still high.

To understand just how ill prepared families are for an unexpected job loss or major illness, the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) has developed an Asset and Opportunity Score Card. One of the measures in the Score Card is the liquid asset poverty rate:

Percentage of households without sufficient liquid assets to subsist at the poverty level for three months in the absence of income, 2009. The threshold used to determine the liquid asset poverty rate varies by family size. A family of three with liquid assets less than $4,632 in 2011 is asset poor.

According to CFED, 36% of Pennsylvania families are liquid asset poor. CFED has more on the problems with asset testing here. Read the rest of this entry →

PA Must Reads: EITC Awareness, New Economic Geography and Stigmatizing The Hungry

7:04 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

(photo: cobalt, flickr)

(photo: cobalt, flickr)

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

Today is Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) awareness day!

EITC, the Earned Income Tax Credit, sometimes called EIC is a tax credit to help you keep more of what you earned. Congress originally approved the tax credit legislation in 1975 in part to offset the burden of social security taxes and to provide an incentive to work. When EITC exceeds the amount of taxes owed, it results in a tax refund to those who claim and qualify for the credit.

Since we are on the topic of the EITC, today is a good day to highlight a proposal to strengthen both the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit so that they are more effective tools for reducing poverty.

..we begin by proposing a 70 percent increase in current minimum wage rates. This would raise the federal minimum from today’s rate of $7.25 to $12.30 per hour.

We also propose two expansions of the EITC, the federal program that provides tax relief and cash benefits for low-income working families. These include raising the maximum EITC benefits by 80 percent and the income eligibility threshold to three times the federal poverty line. The maximum EITC benefit would rise from $5,028 to $9,040 and households with incomes up to $57,000 could receive some benefit.

In combination, these two policy measures would guarantee 60 percent of all low-income working families a decent living standard through full-time employment. The other 40 percent of low-income working families offer more difficult challenges, because they either live in high-cost areas or they depend on only one wage-earner to raise children. But our proposed measures would substantially improve conditions for these households as well. Current policy terms guarantee a decent living standard for only 12 percent of low-income working families. Read the rest of this entry →

PA Must Reads: Wasteful Asset Tests, Unsafe Schools and an Entire School District Headed for a Shutdown

7:38 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

A blog post by Mark Pricei originally published at Third and State.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has an editorial this morning questioning the wisdom of the Corbett administration’s move to limit access to food stamps for poor families.

The Inquirer reported earlier this week that the state would reinstate an “assets test” for Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps beginning in May.

This means that anyone under age 60 with more than $2,000 in the bank ($3,250 for those over 60) will no longer be eligible for food stamps. Houses, retirement benefits and a single vehicle are not counted. The $2,000 threshold, a minimum set by the USDA, hasn’t changed since 1980.

Some have pointed out that the change will cost the state more money to address a problem that doesn’t exist. Federal statistics show that Pennsylvania has a food stamp fraud rate of 0.1% — one of the lowest rates in the nation.

Instead of encouraging the working poor to save, Pennsylvania welfare officials want to punish families for having a few dollars in a bank account…

The rule change could affect as many as 464,000 Philadelphians currently eligible for food stamps, according to city Controller Alan Butkovitz. Almost 30 percent of city residents rely on food stamps for basic survival. Businesses and grocery stores that depend on purchases by food stamp recipients could be hurt, too.

The Associated Press reports the Corbett administration is signaling the level of the asset tests are not set in stone.