Low-income people living in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and 13 other states - many of them seniors and the disabled - may lose billions of dollars in food-stamp benefits while the rest of the country is spared.
That's because Congress is considering restricting states' ability to operate the "Heat and Eat" program, antihunger advocates say.
Heat and Eat coordinates energy assistance with the food-stamp program, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among 15 states participating in Heat and Eat.
If the cuts are made, around 850,000 households in those states would lose nearly $9 billion in SNAP benefits over 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office reports.
In Pennsylvania, 175,000 households would lose an average of $65 per month in SNAP benefits under the plan, said Caryn Long, executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania, a partnership of statewide food banks. That would mean $136 million of SNAP benefits lost in Pennsylvania in a year, 51 million meals, she added.
Multiply those numbers by 10, Long said, to understand the pain Pennsylvanians will feel under the 10-year proposal.
Calculations for New Jersey were unavailable.
The proposed cuts would come on top of $5 billion cuts to SNAP nationwide that took effect Nov. 1. Nearly three million people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey saw their benefits cut by around $29 per month for families of three, and $36 for families of four, according to data from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
That translates into 21 lost meals per month for families of four.
"We're blowing holes through the safety net for the hungry," said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief agency in the area. Philabundance is part of Feeding Pennsylvania. "It's a continuation of the war on the poor."
Referring to Congress' recent choice not to extend long-term benefits for the unemployed, Clark said, "This is another disastrous thing. It's just ridiculous."
Food pantries in this region are already seeing a 20 percent increase in traffic because of the Nov. 1 cuts, Clark said.
There is "absolutely no way" that charity can make up for the lost meals from the Nov. 1 cuts and the cuts to Heat and Eat, Long said.
Heat and Eat began in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2010 because the state's poor suffer from multiple problems, including the inability to afford food as well as to adequately heat and cool their homes, said Julie Zaebst, policy manager at the coalition.
Using calculations based on income, Heat and Eat allows people participating in the energy-assistance program known as LIHEAP to boost their SNAP benefits, Zaebst said.
Under Heat and Eat, seniors and the disabled benefit more than any other group because of formulas used to determine assistance, she said.
Opponents of Heat and Eat say that is a way for people to take advantage of federal largesse. But advocates for the poor call it a vital service whose proposed cut will hurt the most vulnerable Americans.
The loss of Heat and Eat "would put a big bite into us," said Angela Sutton, 38, a Northeast Philadelphia woman with two children, ages 6 and 12.
"We're struggling to stay afloat, and this would put us deeper into poverty. I'd have to take money from the rent and other things to cover it."
Nationwide, the proposed Heat and Eat cut is inspiring "a lot of panic in the states," said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).
A congressional conference committee is weighing Heat and Eat's fate as part of the Farm Bill.
In the past, the House wanted to cut $40 billion from SNAP over 10 years. The Senate proposed $4 billion.
Many see the $9 billion cut as a compromise, Vollinger said. There is growing willingness to cut SNAP on both sides of the aisle, she said.
The proposed cut to Heat and Eat may seem attractive to the 35 states that don't have the program, since none would suffer SNAP cuts, said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, and a nationally known antihunger advocate.
The measure is expected to be taken up in January.
Vollinger said Congress should address creating jobs to get the poor working, not cuts to benefits, which "would only hurt hungry people, not help them."