By Cassie Miller
Pennsylvania recorded its highest-ever number of food-assistance recipients – nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians – in June, alarming already strained charitable food pantries and increasing concern among researchers and anti-hunger advocates.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services reported that in June 5,000 additional residents had enrolled in SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, bringing the total number of Pennsylvanians receiving benefits to 1,982,872.
The record-level increase comes just months after the end of expanded emergency programs that increased monthly benefits to help those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between March and April, when the last of the expanded programs ended, the commonwealth’s charitable food system saw a 15% increase in the number of visits.
Experts say they fear that the end of pandemic-era assistance programs, inflation, rising food costs and low wages, despite record-low levels of unemployment, are worsening an ongoing food security crisis.
“It definitely feels like the post-pandemic situation is kind of the food security crisis of our time because we are still in an environment of pretty low, nearly record-low unemployment,” Zack Zook, senior policy research manager at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, told the Capital-Star. “To be facing the levels of food insecurity that we are is quite concerning.”
To illustrate this, Zook pointed to a recent CPFB report on food insecurity in Lancaster County, which found that less than 30% of food pantry visitors were unemployed or underemployed.
But income, not employment, is the strongest determinant of food security status, the report concluded.
Of people who said that they work full time and reported no weeks not working, 46% earned less than $24,000 per year or $11.50 per hour, according to CPFB data.
Miriam Seidel, associate professor for the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment at Chatham University, emphasized that SNAP is designed to supplement a household’s food budget and that even households that receive full, or the maximum possible SNAP benefit, are not necessarily food secure due to outdated statistics, which expect that families spend about 30% of their income on food.
The maximum monthly benefit a family of four can receive is $939, according to DHS. However, the average monthly benefit for a four-person household is $684.
“That percentage was figured out in the early 1960s but nobody’s ever changed that philosophy,” Seidel said.
In May, a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve found that 54% of U.S. adults said that their budgets had been affected “a lot” by price increases.
Coupling price increases with Pennsylvania’s current $7.25 per hour minimum wage, Seidel said that families have little room for additional expenses.
“If one makes minimum wage, there is no other food budget once you get done paying for your other necessities,” Seidel said.
Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has remained at the current federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour since 2009, despite several legislative attempts to approve an increase.
The most recent attempt, House Bill 1500, would incrementally raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026 and raise the minimum tipped wage from $2.83 per hour to 60% of the regular minimum wage.
The bill passed the House in a 103-100 vote late last month mainly along party lines but with the support of two Bucks County Republicans – state Reps. Kathleen “K.C” Tomlinson and Joseph Hogan.
Researchers said the bill, which has yet to see a vote in the state Senate, would benefit more than a million workers in Pennsylvania, and make the commonwealth’s wage more in line with those of neighboring states New Jersey, New York and Maryland.
“Overall, more than 1.34 million Pennsylvania workers would see their wages rise,” Claire Kovach, a researcher at the Keystone Research Center and Pa. Budget and Policy Center explained.
Kovach added that a majority of the working adults who would receive an increase in their hourly wages under HB 1500 are women (60%) and people of color (30%).
“Every year the minimum wage is not raised, low-wage workers effectively get a pay cut because the cost of their necessities continues to rise,” Kovach wrote in a June analysis of the legislation.
Connecting the dots
Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh-based hunger-reduction nonprofit, has been vocal about the connection between Pennsylvania’s minimum wage and food insecurity.
“No one should be surprised that food insecurity is growing in PA. The recent loss of pandemic SNAP benefits and of other public aid (rent assistance & eviction protection, medical assistance, child tax credits) + ongoing inflation & a poverty-level minimum wage is hurting people,” Just Harvest wrote in a tweet on Wednesday morning.
Just Harvest said in a statement to the Capital-Star that it supports HB 1500, calling the legislation “long overdue.” The nonprofit noted that 1 in 10 Pennsylvanians "skip meals due to financial stress."
“Republican legislative leaders must stop forcing struggling Pennsylvanians to rely on public aid and charity, and allow a minimum wage that is a real investment in our commonwealth's workforce,'' the statement said. "Pennsylvania's workers have surely earned this raise after 16 years, and with inflation and housing, child care, healthcare, and utility costs rising, they desperately need it... All Pennsylvanians deserve the dignity of being able to make a living through full-time work.”
Emily Cleath, director of communications for Just Harvest, said the organization has previously supported “stronger” minimum wage bills but that the organization will support “whatever’s going to pass.”
“We need to invest in the workers in this state if we want our state to prosper,” Cleath said. “The clearest way to do that is to raise the wage already.”
Cassie Miller is associate editor for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.