By Shannon Pettypiece - NBC News
The line begins some days to form more than an hour before a food pantry opens its doors in the neighborhood of Kensington, in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), and it is getting longer: it went from 50 or 60 people at the beginning of the year to more than 75 in recent months. Francheska Serrano, who directs operations there for the Community Center at Visitation, says those in line are suffering from the continued increase in the price of food and the cut in aid approved in the coronavirus pandemic for the payment of food, rent and other basic needs.
"I'm certainly seeing a lot of new faces and an increase in the number of people coming to our food pantry," Serrano said, "I can only assume that this will continue, especially with reduced food benefits."
Leila Register/NBC News, Getty Images
Even though the unemployment rate is at a historically low level and wages have risen, the need for food aid has been growing this year, according to federal government data, consumer surveys and interviews with nonprofit organizations.
In Congress, aid cuts have become a key issue in the latest budget battle, which could lead to a federal government shutdown if there is no deal by Sept. 30 between Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, and Democrats in the Senate and White House.
Republicans pushed through Congress for new restrictions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known as food stamps) in the May negotiation of the public debt ceiling. And now they hope to approve more cuts in the negotiation of the new farm bill.
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"Congress has a really strange and unique political and economic environment," says Tarren Bragdon, director of the Foundation for Government Accountability, which is pushing for higher requirements and new cuts to SNAP. "We have huge deficits, and at the same time low unemployment and millions of unfilled job openings. That's why I'm optimistic that these bipartisan, common-sense solutions can pass," he said.
This debate is, however, taking place at a pressing moment for many. The number of people in the United States receiving SNAP benefits rose to 42 million in May, up 2.3% from the same month a year earlier and up 13% from the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. May household spending data showed that 47% of those earning less than $50,000 a year said they had received food assistance, up from 39% in February, when pandemic emergency funds that bolstered the amount of monthly SNAP aid money had not yet been exhausted. according to data from the firm Morning Consult.
In Feeding America's network of 200 food banks, 80% have seen demand for food assistance increase or remain stable in recent months, says Vince Hall, the group's head of government relations. Rising food prices and the end of pandemic subsidies for food, rent and child care contribute to rising demand, he said.
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"It's the first time in the history of food banks that we've seen a historically low unemployment rate and record demand for food assistance and food banks," Hall said. "The economic crisis that is causing millions and millions of families to turn to food banks has not abated, people are still suffering and wondering how they will get their next meal," he concludes.
One key area where Republicans are pushing for change is work requirements. Until last month, most childless and able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 had to document at least 80 hours of work a month in order to qualify for more than three months of benefits over a three-year period. But under the reform that took effect in September, that age requirement rose to 50, and will reach 54 in October 2024.
[New food stamp eligibility requirements come into effect]
"We need work requirements," said Republican Sen. John Kennedy (Louisiana), "I think if you're under 55, you're healthy and you don't have children at home, you should be encouraged to work."
Republicans advocate expanding the age limit to 65 and eliminating recent exemptions for veterans, the homeless and young people leaving the foster care system and orphanages. Those changes would eliminate benefits for at least three million people, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
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The Government Accountability Foundation is also pushing Congress to require adults with school-age children to join those who must meet 80-hour-a-month work requirements.
Monique Williams, director of partnerships and development for Bread of Life, which distributes fresh produce to about 10,000 to 13,000 families per month, said many of the people her organization helps are already working, but still can't afford the food their families need.
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Although inflation has slowed, the cost of goods overall has not declined: The price of food consumed at home rose 3.6% in July compared with the same month a year earlier, and will close 2023 up 5%, according to the Department of Agriculture. That's on top of the 11% increase in 2022. Globally, prices have risen by at least 13% since inflation began to skyrocket in April 2021.
Claire Richardson, who has worked as a SNAP counselor for nearly a decade for the Philadelphia Hunger Coalition, said she's been hearing more and more people who lost benefits or had them shrink recently because their pay has risen, putting them outside the income eligibility threshold. But once taxes are deducted, that extra income isn't always enough to cover the costs of rent, child care, gas, utilities and food.
"People are very frustrated," he explains, "they're very angry because they're not eligible." "I find it hard to hear it on the phone day after day, month after month, year after year. There has to be another way," he says.
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One of the most frequent concerns she hears from people seeking SNAP benefits is the lack of affordable child care, which prevents parents from being able to work full-time.
"There are families who worked, who never received food stamps in their entire lives, and the mother had to quit her job to stay home and take care of the children," she explains. "What's the point of going to work earning $1,600 a month when child care costs $1,200 and you also need transportation?" she says.
The percentage of children living in poverty more than doubled in 2022, to 12.4%, after Congress allowed the pandemic-approved child tax credit along with other aid to expire, according to a Census Bureau report this month.
Among the reforms Republicans are pushing is also a reversal of the increase in monthly benefit payments implemented by the Joe Biden administration, which adjusted calculations of how much it costs a household to feed on a low budget. With the change, beneficiaries saw their monthly benefits increase by an average of 21%.
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But activists who help SNAP recipients say the current level of aid funding isn't enough for some. In Philadelphia, Serrano says about half of the people who go to his food bank each week receive SNAP benefits and still ask for basic foods, such as cans of tuna and rice.
Republicans in the House of Representatives also want to change the way SNAP money is allocated to states (which administer the program), requiring them to use more of their own funds to cover costs, and limiting their scope to offer exemptions from work requirements to certain groups.
While they control the House, SNAP changes also have to pass through the Democratic-controlled Senate, making reforms difficult, according to Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas. "I don't think funding will be reduced," he said, "you need 60 votes, you have a Democratic-controlled Senate ... I don't see that there are going to be enough votes."
Even so, the defenders of these cuts believe that this is a political and economic opportunity like no other. "I think Congress has a tremendous opportunity to put people on the path to the American dream through commonsense reforms to the food stamp program," said Bragdon, of the Foundation for Government Accountability. "With the labor shortages that businesses face, and the opportunity to receive high starting wages in many jobs, it really is a great opportunity for Americans to lift themselves out of poverty through the power of labor."