The scene at the Community Food Center in North Philadelphia last week was straight out of a Depression-era photograph. Dozens of people, including many seniors, lined up outside the food pantry to gather canned fruits, vegetables and pasta to keep from going hungry.
Elena Carballo, a 65-year-old retiree, said she was forced to go to the pantry because her food stamp benefits were cut Friday.
"I work all my life," she said. "Now I have to come to a food line. It's like begging for food."
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She is one of 47 million Americans whose food stamp benefits were reduced by about 5 percent because a recession-fueled increase in the federal program expired Nov. 1. A divided Congress did not extend it.
In Philadelphia, Carballo's plight was starkly common: Nearly 480,000 residents, or one in three, rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In the U.S., an average of one in seven people use the program. SNAP benefits for all recipients, including children and the elderly, shrunk.
Carballo and her disabled son get by on a pension payment of $700 a month, which is far below the poverty line. She said the loss of $20 in monthly SNAP benefits will make it even harder to pay the bills.
"I'm about to lose my house because I can't afford to pay the rent," she said. "The bills are up over my head. Either I pay rent, or I stay with no light or no water."
Kimberly Johns, who lives in the Logan section of Philly, saw her family's SNAP benefits drop by $36 monthly. She has three children, including a baby girl who is just over a week old.
Johns, who is engaged, never thought she would have to rely on food stamps. She's a college graduate who once worked as an executive assistant for a general contractor. But the company closed, and she had to take a job at an insurance company that pays much less: $1,200 a month.
"I used to make maybe, like, $44,000 a year," she said. "Never had to worry about my household being fed, you know, never had to worry about the things that I do have to worry about now because it feels like sometimes someone else is control."
Johns' SNAP benefits already run out before the end of the month. With $36 less, she said she'll have to buy fewer fresh fruits and vegetables.
David McCorkle, president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, said the food stamp cuts will also hurt supermarket employees.
"Any federal reduction translates directly into a loss of business for Pennsylvania retailers," said McCorkle. "Initially it's probably the part-time workers who would lose hours. Not jobs, but loss of hours. We're concerned about that."
Further SNAP reductions planned
Even deeper cuts could be on the way. House Republicans passed a bill in September that would slash the food stamps program by almost $40 billion over the next decade. A counter plan by Senate Democrats would still reduce the program, by $4 billion over the same period.
Eva Gladstein, head of Mayor Michael Nutter's anti-poverty Office of Community Services, said additional cuts would be devastating for Philadelphia.
"Families are already running out of money to feed their children during the month," she said. "In order to buy food, a family might not pay its rent and face eviction, might not pay its utility bills and then be without heat. ... All of this is going on every day in Philadelphia already ... already!"
Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, sees things differently. She said food stamps and other assistance programs are ballooning out of control. She argues Congress should scale back the SNAP program by setting work requirements for able-bodied adults receiving benefits.
"If we were going to solve the problem of poverty by spending, we would have done it already," she said. "What we need to focus on is reforming these programs so we're helping individuals achieve self-sufficiency and really getting at the heart of the matter rather than just continuing to pour more and more dollars at the symptoms."
But to Gladstein, the idea of a massive government safety net is laughable.
"There are people who are not entitled to any benefit and who are struggling every day to find work," she said. "So the notion of a safety net is, I think, really false because there are people falling through that net all the time."
A bipartisan congressional committee began talks last week in hopes of reaching a deal to fund SNAP benefits. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Lehigh Valley, said he believes lawmakers will eventually agree to cut the program by $6 billion to $10 billion over the next decade.