Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 3, 2008: Food stamp use on the upswing

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By David Guo , Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Paul Beaty/Associated Press

Shoppers use the checkout lines shortly after midnight at One Stop Food & Liquors in Chicago. The market doors open at midnight at the beginning of each month for the express purpose of letting dozens of people begin shopping the instant they have access to the new month’s allotment of food stamps.

Jim Jackson of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh goes to a Murrysville food bank every few months just to see if anybody in the queue qualifies for food stamps.

When he made his last field trip, he signed up a record number at this Westmoreland County food bank, based in a suburb where the median household income tops $76,000, U.S. Census-based estimates show, more than $30,000 higher than the statewide average.

“We were in Mothers of Sorrows Church, and there were 14 persons there who we signed in for food stamps,” said Mr. Jackson.

“I can’t tell you how many people I talk to each day who are crying, who never thought they would have to get food stamps,” he said.

It’s not surprising that from month to month food stamp use ebbs and flows with the economy, eligibility changes and local labor conditions. But overall, household participation rates in April were 49 percent higher statewide than a decade ago, according to state Department of Public Welfare data collected by the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center.

Households in the suburbs and outlying counties are recording some of the highest gains.

Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, for instance, the increase from April 1999 ranges from 34.5 percent in Allegheny County to 54 percent in Butler County.

A more recent monthly snapshot suggests the need might be accelerating, particularly in Washington and Westmoreland counties.


How food stamp use has increased over the past year.

A total of 57,958 households in Allegheny County used food stamps in April, 1.75 percent more than in April 2007. But the change in Washington and Westmoreland was 4.9 and 5.1 percent, respectively, well above the 3.4 percent statewide benchmark.

To qualify for food stamps, a family of four can earn no more than about $26,000 a year, or 130 percent of poverty level. The maximum benefit is about $6,500 a year and varies somewhat from state to state.

But eligibility rules also include provisions for asset caps and deductions, so the raw numbers don’t show how may recipients are the chronically poor, the working poor or members of last year’s middle class who have been hit by layoffs or mortgage defaults.

Stacy Dean, director of food stamp policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., said the overall picture wasn’t all bleak.

Yes, the number of Americans using food stamps is expected to reach an all-time high of 28 million in the fiscal year beginning in October, up from 27.8 million in 2007-08 and 26.5 million two fiscal years ago.

But in cases such as Pennsylvania, she said some of the growth could be attributed to outreach initiatives such as COMPASS, which has allowed such private agencies such as the Urban League and the Hunger Coalition to tap directly into state program data and serve as outreach coordinators.

“The state is trying to reach out to people; [state officials are] working with local community groups with an online application that feeds into different programs,” she said.

“A lot of people in the trade think [COMPASS] is interesting because it was a homegrown initiative. The home agency did it on its own, [it] did it slowly and surely and carefully. [It] didn’t have a flashy announcement and have it fall apart later.”

Dan Silvey, Mother of Sorrows pantry coordinator, said he was not only seeing more people overall, but also greater diversity.

A couple of years ago, 75 to 80 clients a month was typical. But in April, the pantry served 173, including construction workers who lost well-paying but seasonal jobs and a working couple roiled by rising, variable-rate mortgage payments.

“A lot of the people think of Murrysville, why would they have a food pantry in Murrysville.

“Yes, there’s a lot of growth in Murrysville. What they forget about are the people who were here 30, 40 years ago,” he said, noting that Mother of Sorrows also serves the needy in nearby Export, where a food bank closed two years ago.

David Guo can be reached at 412-263-1413 or

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