PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A congressman, the Philadelphia mayor and a trio of Pennsylvania state legislators pledged Monday to live on $35 worth of food for the next week in what they said was an effort to show how hard it is to subsist on government benefits.
The promises made at a supermarket news conference come as a planned asset test for food stamps is set to take effect May 1 in Pennsylvania. The lawmakers each shopped for a week of groceries using strict budgets of $5 per day — the average benefit in Philadelphia.
Organizers of the food stamp challenge said that while it doesn't come close to replicating the actual hardships faced by many low-income families, it does offer a glimpse into their lives.
"Every day in Philadelphia, and in the state of Pennsylvania, and around the country, people rely on food stamps to make ends meet," said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
Starting next week, the state will begin a rolling review of food stamp recipients. Families with $5,500 in assets — or $9,000 for households with seniors or disabled individuals — will be disqualified from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for food stamps.
Officials contend the asset test imposed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's administration will save public money, and that less than 1 percent of the current 1.8 million recipients would be dropped from the program. Critics say any savings will pale in comparison to the manpower required to administer the test.
Pennsylvania had an asset test until 2008, when it was thrown out by then-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. At that time, the limits were $2,000 for a household or $3,250 for families with seniors or disabled members. About a dozen other states also use such tests.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., whose district in Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of hunger in the nation, said Monday that he's taking the food stamp challenge because he wants to show "just how outrageous the cuts are and how outrageous the means tests are."
A farm bill proposal pending in Congress would cut $13.4 billion from the food stamp program.
Brady said state Public Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander and federal legislators should try making the pledge as well.
"I would love to see how many of my fellow colleagues can live on $35 a week. Let them try," said Brady. His groceries totaled $35.21 before a discount shoppers card put him under the limit.
However, Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Carey Miller said Monday that the challenge doesn't give "a true snapshot" of the food stamp benefit. The program is "supplemental," as its official title notes, and recipients often get other aid, she said.
Mayor Michael Nutter, state Sen. Vincent Hughes and state Reps. Tony Payton and Vanessa Lowery Brown also joined the challenge, which is co-sponsored by the hunger coalition and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
About one in seven people in the Philadelphia region — and one in three in the city itself — rely on food stamps, organizers said.
Ronnie McHugh, a retiree from Spring City, Pa., is one of them. Before the news conference, McHugh said that although she held multiple jobs over a lifetime, she never worked anywhere long enough to get a pension. She now relies on Social Security and about $120 a month in food stamps.
The benefit allows her "the luxury to be able to eat salads and tomatoes and fruits." Such nutrition naturally lowers her blood pressure, she said, which will help her stay off medication.
"Good luck!" McHugh told the lawmakers as they went to grab their shopping carts. "It's not easy."