More than 6,600 people in Montgomery, Bucks and Chester counties became at risk of losing their food assistance benefits on Wednesday when a federal regulation limiting the benefits to three months resumed.
Thousands more in South Jersey could potentially lose the benefits as time limits there resume over the summer.
The three-month time limit, which had been suspended because of high unemployment rates during the Great Recession, went back into effect this year.
The limit is for benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) to people considered "ABAWDs" -- able-bodied adults without dependents, or people aged 18 to 49 who have no children and no disabilities. Some people receiving benefits in Pennsylvania began to hit the three-month limit on June 1.
Kathy Fisher, policy manager at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said a major issue her organization anticipates is that people who will lose benefits don't realize they're losing them -- they'll likely find out when they go to use their SNAP cards and they suddenly don't work, she said.
"All the people who will have their benefits cut off should have gotten a letter, but there are all kinds of issues of whether they get the letter, whether they don't read it [or] don't understand it," Fisher said.
She said that 3,350 people in Montgomery County, 1,120 people in Chester County and 2,200 people in Bucks County are estimated to be at risk of losing benefits as a result of the limits. Across the state, roughly 35,000 people total are at risk of losing benefits, she added.
Some counties and localities in Pennsylvania with high unemployment rates, including Philadelphia, Delaware County, Reading, Easton, Bethlehem and Allentown, are exempt from the limits based on unemployment rates, so people in those areas won't be affected. The state had to apply for those exemptions, Fisher said.
People losing benefits can re-qualify by finding a job to work at least 20 hours per week, volunteering or performing community service for 26 hours per month, obtaining a medical exemption or participating in a qualifying education or training program.
Still, Fisher said, the number of Pennsylvania residents facing their benefits being cut off is concerning.
"Obviously, it's not good," Fisher said. "It's in the interests of everyone's health and well-being that people are able to eat, so we hope that some folks out there who really aren't able to work are able to get exemptions. It's a horrible rule, but it's not a rule that Pennsylvania itself has any control over."
Across the river in New Jersey, advocates estimate that anywhere from 50,000 to 55,000 people could potentially be at risk of losing their benefits for the same reason. Counties in South Jersey will begin to hit the three-month limit in July and August, according to Maura Sanders, chief counsel for public benefits at Legal Services of New Jersey.
Sanders said Jersey applied for a provision that delayed the limits, but that the state government decided not to apply for waivers for high-unemployment areas like Pennsylvania did. She said 15 counties would have been eligible for those waivers because of their unemployment rates.
In places like Atlantic City and Camden, where there's high unemployment and low job opportunity, Sanders said, concern is particularly high.
"We don't know what's going to happen on the other end," Sanders said. "The big question I have is: Are there sufficient work activities [available] and are the counties ready?"
Sanders said that Bergen County in northern New Jersey's limit is up already, and that several hundred people lost their benefits.
"It worries me when they say several hundred lost benefits," she said.
Fisher at Philadelphia's Coalition Against Hunger said that the SNAP time limits will worsen food insecurity across the region and the state -- both for people who lose their benefits and people who don't, who will be forced to try to stretch their own resources to help friends and relatives who lose access.
"It has a ripple effect," Fisher said. "That's a really unfortunate reality, that it comes from somewhere, and usually from those who need help the most."