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Eligibility for nutritional assistance expands in Pennsylvania

| Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009

Bonnie Frederick tried to get food stamps last year, but her $9.50-an-hour pay from a packaging company put her monthly income $3 over the limit.

But new guidelines, put in place July 27 by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, make Frederick, 61, of North Versailles and her husband Gary, 62, eligible for food stamps, they learned this week.

"I'm a couponer, and I cook. We don't eat out a lot," Bonnie Frederick said. "We eat a lot of chicken. It will be nice to have some pork."

The couple are among those who fall into the gap between working full time and receiving Social Security. Gary Frederick worked for Nabisco and then Atlantic Baking in East Liberty but lost his job when the plant closed in 2004. He has held part-time jobs, but they get by on her salary and have dipped into savings.

The Fredericks and others like them are being urged to reapply under the changed guidelines that were designed to open the food stamp program to more needy Pennsylvanians. It is the first time in nearly 30 years that Pennsylvania has raised income limits.

"People have been excruciatingly borderline," Esther Bush, president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, said of those applying for food stamps. "We've seen a tremendous increase in people asking for (emergency) food."

More than 230,000 people receive food stamps in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Fayette, Beaver, Washington and Greene counties. The Welfare Department isn't sure how many more will become eligible under the new rules.

"While we believe the number applying will certainly be contingent on the state of the economy, our best estimate is that (new applicants) will not exceed 200,000 (statewide)," said spokeswoman Stacey Witalec.

The gross income limit for food stamps increased from 130 percent of the federal poverty line to 160 percent. That means under these guidelines, a family of four making as much as $33,924 a year is eligible. The limit was $27,564.

Rachel Meeks, food stamp campaign manager at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said Welfare Department officials expressed concern about raising the income limits. Pennsylvania took a cautious approach by upping the limits to 160 percent of the federal poverty line, not the 200 percent that federal rules allow.

"With the budget constraints we're under, it made sense to go halfway," she said.

The Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center says most food stamps recipients are children younger than 17 or senior citizens.

In an example calculated by the organization, a single mother of two who earns $12 an hour at a full-time job and pays child care costs of $200 a week, $650 rent and some utility costs, would be eligible for about $480 a month in benefits.

Income guidelines for the elderly and disabled were raised to 200 percent of the federal poverty line — which ranges from $10,830 a year, or $903 a month, for one person to $37,010 a year, or $3,085 a month, for a family of eight.

An elderly couple collectively receiving $1,500 a month in Social Security benefits, with medical expenses of nearly $200 a month, an escrowed mortgage payment of $1,000 and some utility costs, would be eligible for about $275 a month in food stamp benefits.

From a public health perspective, Pennsylvania's jump is beneficial because research shows food stamps improve the nutritional value of the food that people can buy, said Mariana Chilton, a hunger expert and a professor at Drexel University's School of Public Health.

"We're both diabetics. This will mean more vegetables and less starches," Frederick said. She shops at discount grocers Aldi and Sav-A-Lot, and sometimes gets food from Angel Food Ministries, a food bank.

Advocates first started talking in 2007 with the Welfare Department about overhauling the food stamp program that serves more than 1.3 million Pennsylvanians per month.

"I think the policymakers are aware of the deep stresses that people are in," said Joni Rabinowitz, co-director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh advocacy group. "It's really going to help a lot of people who really need it."

The agency is recontacting people who didn't qualify under the old guidelines to get them to reapply, as is a hunger services program at the Urban League. In a recent two-week period, almost two dozen people signed up, said Karen Garrett, the Urban League's program manager.

"Some people are working two jobs and still struggling," Garrett said.

Even the name of the program changed. It's now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The changes were "done in part through coordination with advocates," Witalec said. "We wanted to capture more families that really have a need during a really difficult time."

Higher income limits will help working families and seniors who have struggled to stretch their food dollars, said Laura Tobin, operations and food stamp manager at the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center.

Hunger costs Pennsylvania $3.2 billion a year — including almost $2.4 billion for medical and mental health care because of increases in illness and psychosocial dysfunction; $330 million from reduced educational achievement and lowered worker productivity; and $517 million in expenses for charitable activities, the state said.

Dawn Rice of Coraopolis found out she now qualifies for the program. She isn't sure how much assistance she'll get, but anything would help, she said.

She spends about $500 a month on food. That includes costly formula for her 9-month-old son. Rent is $800, and her electric bill is about $120. She pays a baby-sitter about $100 a week. To qualify for the program, Rice can't earn more than $2,347 a month.

"It will definitely keep me afloat. I might be able to start getting out of debt. I'm behind on everything," said Rice, who until recently made too much at her job at a veterinary clinic to qualify.

Helping hand

More than 230,000 people receive food stamps in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The estimate, under the new guidelines, is that new applicants will not exceed 200,000 statewide.

Allegheny 129,764

Westmoreland 33,752

Fayette 27,823

Beaver 20,690

Washington 20,063

Greene 6,186

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare

Who needs assistance?

They can be younger than 17 or older than 65 — white, black or Hispanic. Many are employed.

People participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, Pennsylvania's renamed food stamp program, don't match traditional demographics.

More than 582,000 children younger than 17 received food stamps in June, according to Laura Tobin, operations and food stamp outreach manager at Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center. Almost 300,000 people ages 46 and older received food stamps during that period.

Nearly 500,000 people ages 18 to 45 received food stamps in June.

Tobin said 23.7 percent of all households receiving food benefits earned income. Many, more than 63 percent, don't receive public assistance.

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