WILKES-BARRE — Federal funding cuts 5.4 percent to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program going into effect Friday will reduce food-stamp payments for nearly 60,000 Luzerne County residents.
The state Department of Welfare says more than 1.8 million individuals receive the SNAP benefit in Pennsylvania — 53,973 in Luzerne County. In 2012, the average monthly SNAP benefit per household was $265.86 issued to 869,157 SNAP households.
The program will be reduced by about 5.4 percent due to the expiration of the federal stimulus package that temporarily increased funding for the program.
Gretchen Hunt, director of nutrition programs at the Weinberg Food Bank, said the cuts will reduce allocations to individuals and families by $11 to $50 per month.
“That may not sound like much, but it really is,” Hunt said. “It could mean cutting an elderly person who needs the help to buy milk or bread or to a family with several children.”
Federal funding for food stamp benefits temporarily was increased in 2009 due to a federal stimulus package called the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in response to the 2007-09 recession and the 2008 financial collapse. This stimulus package will expire on Nov. 1, resulting in across-the-board benefit reductions.
“The federal reduction in benefits is a small decrease, but unfortunately it will affect many households here in Pennsylvania,” Department of Public Welfare Secretary Beverly D. Mackereth said. “It is our hope that our local organizations and communities can pull together to help fill the gap for our citizens in need.”
Gap getting ‘bigger’
Hunt said the gap is already wide.
“This just makes that gap bigger,” she said.
SNAP is federally funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is administered by the commonwealth. Last week, the state Department of Public Welfare began sending letters to recipients notifying them of the reduction.
Hunt said that with the holidays approaching, the demand for food is certain to increase significantly. She said children are out of school more days in November, December and January, requiring more food to be in the home.
Hunt said that in July, August and September, the Weinberg Food Bank distributed more than 1 million pounds of food. She said that number will go up over the next three months.
“We always see a spike for the coming quarter,” she said. “And donations increase as well because people realize the need is greater, and that’s good. But the fact is we have a growing need every day, week and month.”
Casey weighs in
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said the plan to cut another $40 billion from the SNAP program would harm Pennsylvania families, seniors and the economy.
“Investing $1 in SNAP produces $1.75 in economic growth,” he said. “Factoring in the coming Nov. 1st cuts, it is even more important to reject these draconian cuts.”
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, said SNAP benefits were increased under the stimulus during the height of the recession and are now returning to their previous levels.
“Since the economy is still tough, I believe that no one who is eligible for food stamps should go hungry,” Barletta said.
He said the GOP-controlled House has been working to preserve the program for people who need it “by preventing lottery winners, traditional college students, the deceased, illegal immigrants and those convicted of drug offenses” from accessing benefits.
“We also want to allow states to drug test recipients if they choose to do so,” he said. “By cutting waste and fraud, we can reduce costs and preserve the benefits for eligible recipients.”
U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, said that at a time when 14.9 percent of state households suffer from “food insecurity,” the SNAP cuts will only impose further suffering on the most vulnerable.
“Empirical evidence shows that food insecurity has been associated with adverse child health outcomes such as poor child health and higher than average rates of hospital admissions,” Cartwright said.
He said senior citizens on fixed incomes also benefit from the SNAP program; 14 percent of state residents received SNAP benefits in 2013, and of those, 36 percent are in families with elderly or disabled members.
To address the growing need for food donations, the Commission on Economic Opportunity in August broke ground for the new Monsignor Andrew J. McGowan Center for Healthy Living in the Center Point Commerce and Trade Park East. The 50,000-square-foot facility is under construction on 6.3 acres donated by Rob Mericle of Mericle Development, whose company also prepared the site.
In June, when the SNAP cuts were first announced, Hunt and Rich Kutz, the Weinberg Food Bank’s director, said cutting the program will increase demands on the bank’s services that already provide 5 million pounds of food to families in 190 programs in four counties — Luzerne, Lackawanna, Wyoming and Susquehanna.
Kutz said the down economy and high unemployment are reasons the food bank has been seeing more and more people seeking help.