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More Pennsylvania, New Jersey suburbanites using food stamps

By Alfred Lubrano
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

In better times, when people felt flush, blackjack dealer Linette Fawkes could count on making as much as $80,000 a year in the once-humming casino where she works.

The 38-year-old unmarried mother of four boys from Downingtown could easily afford her three-bedroom, $1,000 apartment appointed with leather furniture, eclectic art, and a Jacuzzi.

But fewer people are willing to fling around betting chips in a time of tight dollars. As a result, Fawkes’ work hours have been cut back so drastically – some weeks to just 10 hours – that she can’t pay for heating oil and must move soon.

Recently, she had no choice but to apply for food stamps to help feed her sons, ages 3 through 18.

“It’s not fair,” she said one afternoon, folding laundry in her frigid living room at a time when she would normally be working. “This has become so frustrating for me and my kids.”

Not readily associated with the townships and boroughs outside Philadelphia, food stamps are becoming more commonplace as the recession that economists said was over still manages to disrupt and confound everyday life.

“Areas where you wouldn’t expect food stamps to be have increasing difficulties,” said Temple University sociologist David Elesh, a coprincipal investigator of Temple’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project. “Among well-off populations along Routes 30 or 202, you’re seeing substantial growth in the percentage of households on food stamps. The recession continues to damage people’s quality of life. People almost everywhere are hurting.”

All but 15 of the 353 municipalities that make up the eight-county region saw an increase in the use of food stamps between January 2007 and January 2010, according to the Indicators Project.

The number of households on food stamps jumped 34 percent throughout the region to nearly 308,000. While the cities – particularly Philadelphia – have the highest food-stamp use, some of the biggest percentage-point jumps were in middle-class and affluent suburban communities.

In fact, several high-income oases coveted for their calm prosperity have seen a bigger share of their households receiving food stamps, known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“The hunger is hidden, but I’ve seen increases in it here,” said Martha Kriebel, pastor of Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ in Collegeville, where the median household income is more than $104,000.

The Montgomery County borough recorded a nearly 7-percentage-point increase in the share of households receiving food stamps between 2007 and 2010, an analysis of government data shows. That’s the highest jump in SNAP usage of any regional municipality with a median household income of more than $100,000.

In 2009, a Collegeville shopping center with an Acme market closed, leaving dozens out of work, according to Borough Manager Geoff Thompson. Last year, Pfizer Inc., an employer there, laid off 450 people, he noted.

Other nearby pharmaceutical companies and corporations also have had their troubles, Kriebel noted.

“You have layoffs. You have underemployment,” she said. “Even though it’s a high-income area, when the job goes, the crisis starts.

“People outside the area who’ve struggled all along say we here in Collegeville should just learn to live with trouble like the rest of the world.”

A small borough of more than 1,200 households, Collegeville looks like a plush and sturdy place, all church spires and graceful homes. At its center is the 165-acre Ursinus College campus, lending a brick-and-stone durability to the community.

But what’s on the surface doesn’t tell the whole story. From 2007 to 2010, the number of households receiving food stamps increased from 58 to 145.

“In the last two years, we’re seeing more Collegeville people coming here for food,” said Dave Russo, who helps run a small food bank at St. Eleanor Roman Catholic Church in town.

“Just because it’s beautiful out here doesn’t mean it’s serene,” said Jenny Greenwald, owner of Greenwald Flower & Plant Workshop and an active player in Collegeville’s Main Street business district.

“This is middle-class America, where people were hit hard. Jobs are scarce.

“Everyone moved out here with the presumption that there always would be good times. It’s frustrating to see people struggling now.”

While trouble may be growing, residents of well-off places such as Collegeville are loath to discuss it with outsiders.

“People have a lot of pride,” Russo said. “They just won’t talk about it openly.”

The story is much the same in Lumberton, a Burlington County community of 4,389 households where the median household income is nearly $80,000. SNAP usage increased nearly 3 percentage points between 2007 and 2010, from 336 to 463 households.

There, residents confide in one another about their economic troubles online, said Mesha Hickman, manager of Pac a Sack, a convenience store on the town’s Main Street.

“A significant number go on Facebook talking about losing jobs they had for years,” she said. “Even the rich are complaining. They bought big, $500,000 houses and thought they’d have jobs for life.”

Mostly farmland not long ago, Lumberton saw McMansions supplant soybeans after a significant period of development within the last 15 years, according to Dan Boas, director of the Burlington County Board of Social Services.

After the boom, however, came the life-altering bust.

In 2007, 4,426 households in the county were receiving food stamps; by 2010, the number had doubled to 8,895, Boas said.

Layoffs in the pharmaceutical and mortgage-finance industries may be partly to blame, he added.

“A lot of my customers have applied for food stamps,” said Joyce Wentz, manager of the Children’s Home Thrift Shop on Main Street. Not long ago, Wentz said, those customers were well-off neighbors who donated their belongings to the store, whose sales benefit a 147-year-old home for displaced children in nearby Mount Holly.

“A woman came to me the other day and said, ‘I don’t know how I’ll feed my kids,’ ” Wentz said. “Her husband had a great job that he lost, and she never worked. There are so many stories like that.”

More and more, food stamps – along with food pantries – are becoming vital elements of survival for still-shocked suburbanites desperate to keep their children fed.

In Pennsylvania, a family of four can access SNAP benefits if it makes as much as 160 percent of the poverty level, around $35,000 annually. In New Jersey, it’s 185 percent of poverty, more than $38,000.

Both states increased eligibility to current levels from 130 percent of poverty last year, after the Temple study took place. That means the increases in food-stamp usage that researchers noted reflected pure need, not simply the expansion of the food-stamp program.

The average monthly SNAP benefit for an individual in Pennsylvania is $123; in New Jersey, it’s $125.

One of the toughest things for people to understand is the idea of growing poverty in places with quiet cul-de-sacs and quaint Main Streets never too far from a Whole Foods or a Williams-Sonoma.

“People tell me, ‘I don’t get it. Where are all the poor people you’re serving?’ ” said Jan Leaf, executive director of the Lord’s Pantry, a Downingtown food cupboard. “I say, ‘They’re handing you a cart when you get into a Wegmans.’

“Once they get to a certain point – once they lose the job or get their hours cut back – it all plummets so fast. They lose the utilities, the house, the ability to buy food. They wind up moving in with friends and relatives.”

Things aren’t that bad yet for Glennie Campbell, 57, a disabled former bar manager, whose husband, John, 60, lost his pipe fitter’s job two years ago.

“He went from $17 an hour to nothing,” Campbell said, smarting on her husband’s behalf. “It’s hard for him. And we had to go on food stamps – $174 a month – to make it.”

“I tell you, this economy is sure teaching people how to clip coupons.”

Making things harder, noted Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, is the process of applying for and receiving food stamps, since county-assistance offices are carrying huge caseloads and are understaffed. “You really have to be diligent and follow through,” she said.

It’s just another stressor for middle-class people unused to needing government help, Leaf said.

“What they’re dealing with on a daily basis is just unimaginable,” she said. “They have no idea what they’re going to do.

“You wonder how they plug on.”

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