Hunger Should Not Be a Punishment for People who Struggle to Find Work

Categories:  Community    News & Politics    Opinion
Wednesday, January 6th, 2016 at 1:00 PM
Hunger Should Not Be a Punishment for People who Struggle to Find Work by Brian Cabaday and Louise Hayes
Contributed photo

Imagine trying to find a job in this challenging economy. Now, imagine trying to find a job in this economy when you are skipping meals, living off of ramen noodles instead of fresh vegetables, and having to choose between paying the gas bill and eating regularly. For thousands of people in Pennsylvania, this will soon be a reality.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), is a vital tool that helps people stretch their limited budgets. SNAP helps to make sure that struggling families, veterans, children, and seniors get enough to eat each day. It also plays an important role in ensuring that adults who are experiencing tough times are able to maintain their health while weathering the storm. In 2014, SNAP helped an average of 46 million Americans every month, including almost 1.9 million right here in Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, beginning in 2016 in some areas of Pennsylvania, including all of Erie County, adults without children in the household, and who are not disabled, will be subject to a three-month SNAP time limit unless they are working 20 hours a week or meet certain exemptions. SNAP benefits are modest – averaging about $1.40 per person per meal. Yet even this small “hand-up” can make a huge difference in someone’s ability to weather our economic downturn until they can find work. Finding a job in this economy is difficult enough. To do so while choosing between paying bills and eating right can feel insurmountable.

The people who are about to lose their SNAP benefits are some of the poorest in Erie. This population includes youth who are aging out of foster care, people who struggle to find work because of criminal records or low literacy, and veterans. It also includes people who are trying to work more than 20 hours per week, but can’t find the hours because employment opportunities are not available or they lack the time and technology to perform a job search while juggling the other difficulties of their lives. Those living in the rural parts of Erie County may find searching for a job especially challenging, as there are few, if any, options for public transportation.

To be frank, this time limit will further punish people because they can’t find a job, including some of the more than 7,400 people in Erie County who are currently struggling with unemployment.

Approximately 30,000 people in Pennsylvania stand to lose their SNAP benefits. This will be especially harmful to Erie, which has a poverty rate of 25.1 percent – the fourth-highest of any major city in the state.

In total, there are approximately 100,000 people in Pennsylvania who fall into this category, although about 70,000 people will be protected by a geographic waiver because of high unemployment in their area, or because they are exempt. That means that approximately 30,000 people in Pennsylvania stand to lose their SNAP benefits. This will be especially harmful to Erie, which has a poverty rate of 25.1 percent – the fourth-highest of any major city in the state.

In other words, you might know someone who is about to go hungry.

Fortunately, there are ways that you can help. First, help members of your community figure out if they are exempt, so they don’t lose their benefits. Adults between the ages of 18 and 50, without kids living with them, can be exempt if they’re receiving or applying for unemployment compensation, participating in a drug or alcohol treatment program, or have a disability.

Second, if you do know someone who gets cut off from SNAP, let them know that they have a right to appeal the decision. Those appealing can keep their benefits while they figure out if they meet an exemption or find a community service opportunity.

Third, you can assist the people you know, as well as your community, by helping them find community service placements. One of the ways that people can keep their SNAP benefits is by volunteering through community service to “work for benefits.” This can allow someone time to search for a job while also helping their community and keeping SNAP. Nonprofit or religious organizations and government sites can help people keep SNAP by hosting them as volunteers for seven hours a week.

Although the economy has certainly improved from the depths of the recession, there are still millions of men and women unable to find stable employment. Many people are only able to find a small number of work hours. Meanwhile, the struggle to deal with insufficient income can sap the energy and money needed for the job search.

People who are trying to find work shouldn’t be punished, and no one should be forced to go hungry.

In order to prevent people from losing their SNAP benefits, Congress could repeal this time limit altogether, recognizing that we have not fully recovered from the recession and that the health of our community members impacts all of us.

In the meantime, if you can help neighbors, co-workers, or community members to put food on the table by connecting them with volunteer opportunities or helping them figure out if they still qualify for benefits, you will make a huge difference to them. At a time when people are about to go hungry, it’s all hands on deck.

Brian Cabaday is a Paralegal at Northwestern Legal Services in Erie. Louise Hayes is a Supervising Attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. For more information about these changes, visit

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