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A Record 2 Million Pennsylvanians Use SNAP Benefits

In 2022, the state raised the income eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from 165 percent of the federal poverty income to 200 percent, expanding the eligible population by 420,000 residents.

The biggest nutritional program in the country looks quite different from just a few years ago.

Since the pandemic, Pennsylvania expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program's eligibility requirements, and the federal government beefed up payments. Now, a record two million Pennsylvanians are enjoying those benefits.

But the question is why SNAP participation surged, despite flat population growth in the state and record-low unemployment nationwide. Local advocates like Colleen Young, director of government affairs for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, say food insecurity is still at crisis levels, and even recent program boosts aren't doing enough.

"We're continuing to see those numbers go up and up," she said. "That just points to the fact that the amount of money that people are receiving through their benefits is not sufficient."

A new report published this month by the Independent Fiscal Office sheds light on the state's record SNAP participation since the pandemic, suggesting that several policy shifts that came down from the state and federal level could have played a key role.

Since November 2019, the number of recipients has increased by 16 percent and the average monthly benefit by 52 percent, according to the report.

The latest of the policy changes the report cites came in 2023, when the state announced new flexibility for SNAP requirements to help more college students, if they're enrolled in a qualifying employment and training program, become eligible.

The state also, back in 2022, raised SNAP income eligibility from 165 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines to 200 percent. An additional 420,000 residents became newly eligible for the program.

And the year prior, almost all SNAP households saw a modest increase in their SNAP benefits when the USDA reevaluated the Thrifty Food Plan for the fiscal year 2022. The USDA concluded that the cost of a nutritious, practical and cost effective diet is 21 percent higher than the current plan. The resulting cost adjustment led to an increase between $12 to $16 per person per month.

This marked the first time the plan's purchasing power has changed since it was first introduced in 1975.

While SNAP benefits did indeed jump, from $119 in 2019 to $181 in 2023, Ms. Young still sees the amount as a far cry from the amount families need to keep up with the cost of living. There's also the fact that the average monthly benefit, which exceeded the $200 mark for the past two years thanks to SNAP emergency allotments, fell significantly when those extra payments phased out.

The current average breaks down to just about $6 per person per day, she said.

"Imagine trying to purchase all the food for yourself or your family on $6 per person per day," she said. "Anyone who goes to the grocery store knows that the cost of food has continued to rise. Even though the rate of growth slowed down in the last year, the overall cost of food has not decreased at all."

Some populations were hit harder than others. In particular, for seniors, the minimum monthly benefit rose during the pandemic up to $281. When those pandemic-era benefits expired, the minimum benefit dropped down to $23.

"About 90 percent of the people using the SNAP program are children, people with disabilities and seniors," she said. "So these are people who are in the most vulnerable situations, and have limited access to resources and really need this benefit in order to be able to afford food for themselves and their families."

When it comes to Pennsylvania's recent move to increase SNAP's reach to individuals who fall under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, Ms. Young says it's still a low number. The monthly income limit is $2,430, which is less than $30,000 a year, she said.

The report also points to the fact that the SNAP participation still climbed while unemployment fell, but that's not surprising to Ms. Young. She said most people using SNAP benefits who can work do so. And those who aren't working while on SNAP are mostly children, seniors and people with disabilities, and they wouldn't be counted in the unemployment rate anyway.

"The report assumes that these policy changes are the number one driver, and I'm not completely sure that's the full story," she said.

And Sally Ellwein, director of meeting basic needs at the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, says there's an overlooked population to consider, one captured by the term ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

These are people who are working and making more than the federal poverty line, but they are still unable toafford the basics of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and other expenses. Not all of that population is eligible for SNAP benefits, she said.

She sees the state and federal government's measures over the past few years as steps in the right direction, but there's still more work ahead.

"I think increasing the income limit was the right move," she said. "I think increasing the benefit itself was the right move. We could certainly do more. And it's not just SNAP. It's the combination of all of the other things that are happening right now, with stagnant wages, the loss of other other benefits, like the child tax credit. All of these things are kind of contributing to the struggle that people have with putting food on the table."

Some groups, including the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, are advocating for some reforms to the Farm Bill, which Ms. Young considers the "number one piece of federal legislation" that addresses food insecurity. The previous Farm Bill was set to expire last September, but the federal lawmakers extended it another year.

Among the changes is tying the Thrifty Food Plan directly to inflation.

"The USDA would be able to use its authority to regularly adjust the Thrifty Food Plan, so that as food costs continue to rise, or if they go down, that would also mean that the food plans will be adjusted down," she said. " Congress should ensure that the purchasing power of SNAP provides adequate resources to support families and that it aligns with grocery prices."

And Ms. Young notes that SNAP is 100 percent federally funded, so these are not dollars that are not coming out of Pennsylvania's pocket. In fact, it's a local economic driver, she said.

"For every dollar that's spent with the SNAP program, it returns anywhere from $1.50 to $1.80 back into the community," she said. "It's not just supporting households who are experiencing food insecurity, but because of the economic growth that these funds generate, it's really benefiting the whole community."


(c)2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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