Philadelphia families and merchants brace for food stamp cuts

In a city with poverty rates among the nation's highest, many corner stores rely on food stamp customers for business

A $5 billion reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program took place Friday.
Jay Pickthorn/AP

PHILADELPHIA — "Can I get two beef sticks? Make it quick!" a young boy calls out, rapping his knuckles on the plastic counter that comes up to his chin.

Banter is just as brisk as business by the cash register at the Polo Food Market at 10th and Brown streets in Philadelphia. Customers greet and tease each other, haggle over prices with "Papi" – the quiet man behind the register — and make small talk with the steady stream of kids stopping in to buy beef jerky and Sour Punch candies.

But some customers will likely be buying a bit less this month, after a $5 billion reduction took effect Friday morning in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.

"I know business is going to drop. I hope not a lot, but it's going to drop," said store manager Alex Rodriguez. "It's going to affect all the economy, all the stores."

He estimates that 40 percent of his business comes from food stamps. "Around here, everyone has food stamps," he said. "In every family, at least someone has food stamps."

The across-the-board cuts — the first in the program's 43-year history — occurred when the temporary boost that recipients received from the 2009 economic stimulus bill expired. A family of four that was getting the monthly maximum, $668, will now get $632. That reduction that may seem minor, but food-security advocates say it is significant, especially when family budgets are already stretched thin.

Advocates worry that much deeper cuts are yet to come as Congress continues debating the farm bill, which authorizes the SNAP program, in the coming days. House Republicans want to see $39 billion trimmed from SNAP over the next 10 years. Senate Democrats prefer a $4.5 billion cut over the same period.

'Cutting it very close'

Food stamps are more popular than ever. Nearly 48 million Americans — 1 in 7 — receive them. In Philadelphia, which has one of the highest poverty rates among major U.S. cities, 31 percent of residents are on food stamps.

Niya Tillman, 36, is one of them. She sits in a wheelchair in back of the Polo Food Market waiting for her deli order. A gunshot wound left her paralyzed from the waist down.

"I actually didn't hear about it until I called yesterday to check and found out they were reduced by $20," said Tillman, who receives $162 in food stamps each month for her and her 16-year-old son. She said they will certainly feel the squeeze. "He's damn near 6 feet tall," she said. "That's cutting it very close."

When asked about her reaction to the news, Tillman calmly said, "Anger — because it wasn't fully explained why it's being done. I haven't the slightest idea, really."

Another customer in the store, 42-year-old Charlene Richardson, said she does not receive food stamps but is upset about the changes. "I feel it's horrible," she said. "A lot of people don't understand the reason why they're taking them. Just crack down on the people misusing them!"

David McCorkle, president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, said the Nov. 1 changes will affect many local grocers in low-income areas, where he said SNAP customers make up 25 percent or more of their business volume.

"The Philadelphia area is one of the most competitive in the country," he said. "If you're making a little better than 1 percent after taxes, you're doing well."

He expects store owners will reduce the number and hours of their employees to compensate.

In defense of cuts

Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said changes are necessary to put the food-stamp program on a more prudent course.

"It's important to put the proposed cuts in perspective," she said. "Food-stamp spending has doubled twice in the last decade or so. It doubled prior to the recession between 2000 and 2007 and doubled again between 2008 and 2012. So $40 billion (over 10 years) would be just a 5 percent cut to a program that has grown by about 200 percent (since 2000).”

Sheffield said the SNAP program has expanded far beyond the population it was intended to serve, those who are most in need. She recommends restricting eligibility by implementing asset tests and cutting loopholes like "heat and eat," in which households can receive a few dollars from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program to trigger higher food-stamp benefits.

The Food Research and Action Center, a hunger-fighting advocacy group, wants to see Congress protect and strengthen SNAP, not reduce funding or restrict eligibility. The organization cites a 2008 report by Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi that found that every $1 spent on a temporary increase in food stamps generates $1.73 in gross domestic product. Zandi, who lives outside Philadelphia, says he estimates that number to be $1.65 today.

At the Polo Food Market, Tillman said she would budget more and try to shop at cheaper stores like ShopRite and Giant instead of Pathmark and Acme.

As for sales at his store, Rodriguez said, "Around here, it's all about hoagies, bananas, juices, sodas and milk."

He said his customers will "keep on buying the same things — just less."

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