Enrollment in food aid programs at highest level ever in PA

Enrollment in food assistance in Pennsylvania has hit a new record high, with more than 2 million participants receiving benefits in October and November, the months for which the most recent state data is available.

Roughly 1.7 million Pennsylvanians were receiving assistance through SNAP prior to the pandemic.

Why is enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly called SNAP or food stamps — so high when unemployment is so low? The state’s unemployment rate in November was 3.4% — a record low.

Experts and advocates have pointed to inflation and some state policy changes that expanded the number of people eligible and made enrollment easier as potential reasons for the increased use of the program.

It could also be a sign wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, said Ann Sanders, director of public benefits policy and programs at Pittsburgh-based anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest.

“People … still … need to rely on forms of assistance to meet their basic needs,” she said. “Housing costs have gone up a lot. Child care has gone up a lot. A lot of expenses have gone up a lot. Food has gone up a lot. And people's wages have not kept up with that inflation, and so there's still a gap that needs to be filled by programs like SNAP.”

An analysis by the state’s Independent Fiscal Office attributes the increase in beneficiaries to policy changes in October 2022 that increased eligibility from 165% of the federal poverty income guidelines to 200% (roughly $60,000 annually for a family of four), as well as a change in August that expanded eligibility to some college students.

A federal change increased some benefit amounts starting in 2021, but people also lost COVID-related additional food assistance in early 2023, which for some households amounted to hundreds of dollars a month.

“I think a lot of it is that people were relying on other forms of assistance to get through the pandemic and ride out the inflation that we've seen over the last couple of years, and those forms of assistance are gone,” said Sanders.

Officials from the state Department of Human Services pointed out that Pennsylvania’s minimum wage, the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, has been in place since 2009; Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, has said he supports raising it.

SNAP is federally funded but administered by states, which have different rules for participation. Nationally, more than 41 million people are enrolled in the program, according to federal statistics; that’s up from about 36 million people nationally before the onset of the pandemic.