Though there are hopeful signs we are turning the corner on the pandemic, the barometer for “normal” varies: Some people will feel normal when they can see extended family again. Others, when they can drink at a bar or eat at a restaurant again. For many in Pennsylvania, the tide turns when they actually have enough to eat and feed their families.
In the early days of the pandemic, miles-long lines of people lining up at food pantries were among the many shocking images of our new world. Just as the loss of life laid bare inadequacies in our health care system, those long food pantry lines illuminated just how fragile our social safety net remained. While the government response of stimulus checks, eviction moratoriums, and increases in unemployment and food stamps alleviated some of the pain, the level of suffering remained staggering.
Now, a year later, there is cause for optimism.
For one thing, President Biden has, through an executive order, announced a new focus on hunger, increasing food stamp allotments and eligibility, and encouraging more assistance for children and pregnant women. In addition, a rule that limits on nutrition assistance for adults with no dependents has also been withdrawn.
Closer to home, a legal victory means that many Pennsylvanians will get a big boost in retroactive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Community Legal Services and the law firm of Morgan Lewis recently prevailed in a suit filed against the Trump administration on behalf of the lowest income SNAP recipients who were kept from getting the extra emergency allotments that other people received. Around 650,000 Pennsylvanians will be seeing on average an extra $95 per household in food stamp benefits per month, and the boost could provide something that SNAP recipients rarely get: enough.
For decades, political battles over food stamps have raged, with Republicans trying to set new limits and work requirements, and demonizing recipients as lazy, selfish or inclined to spend their SNAP on luxury items.
The pandemic changed that as lives and jobs were upended, and with it, an understanding of just how deeply the roots of poverty in this country have taken hold. Now with other anti poverty initiatives like a child tax credit, direct stimulus payments and emergency allotments, advocates, economists and others are optimistic that meaningful change in the country’s poverty rates is possible. But that means making pandemic-era changes permanent.
In Philadelphia, advocates like CLS as well as Drexel University’s Center For Hunger-Free Communities are continuing to argue for more — and more permanent — assistance. For example, food stamp benefits are based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, the lowest of four tiers of food spending that sets $137.70 per week for a family of four. Advocates argue that the plan should be more realistically set at 30% higher — and levels should be permanently raised. Also SNAP eligibility for college students should be expanded.
The number of people using food stamps — 41 million nationwide and 1.8 million in Pennsylvania — in a country as wealthy as ours is shocking. The new money is important, but so is the recognition that assisting people out of poverty helps build strength, not weakness.