The Jewish community’s involvement in the fight against hunger is nothing new. In fact, it likely stems from the biblical idea of gleaning, the practice of not harvesting the edges of a crop so that those in need could help themselves.
Nowadays, synagogues often have food drives and other events to help support local food pantries. The end goal has always been the same, though, to help those in need become self-sustaining. That’s why many in the community are concerned about the Corbett administration’s reinstatement of an asset test.
“What JF&CS is concerned about is that bringing back the asset test may prohibit self-sufficiency that allows individuals to get out of the cycle of poverty,” said Becky Abrams, the director of the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry, a division of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh.
The asset test is nothing new to Pennsylvania. It had been in place up until former Gov. Ed Rendell suspended the program in 2008 after the state saw an increase in need for assistance and is currently used for other public assistance programs.
“The purpose is to bring integrity back into the program,” said Carey Miller, spokesperson for the Department of Public Welfare.
“By having the asset test, that will help us preserve the program benefits for the individuals who do not have any other means or resources to purchase food.”
The asset test that Pennsylvanians will need to pass in order to be eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits has higher limits than previously used. People under age 59 cannot have more than $5,500, and those who are age 60 and up or disabled cannot have more than $9,000. Some assets are excluded from the test, including a burial plot, life insurance, pension plans and a first car. Assets that are counted include cash on hand, stocks and bonds.
Some 1.8 million people in Pennsylvania receive food stamps through the federally funded program and the new rules are expected to impact less than 1 percent of current recipients, about 4,000 people.
Because people in need of food assistance often do not want to talk about the problem, it is easy to forget that no community is immune from hunger and financial problems.
According to Aryeh Sherman, president and CEO of JF&CS, of the approximately 40,000 Jews living in the Pittsburgh area, half of the 8,400 seniors self-identify as financially vulnerable, and 4,000 families, or about 20 percent, are financially at risk. He expects those numbers have gotten worse, not better, since the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s last community study from about 10 years ago, when the data was gathered.
“It’s not something that people are always aware of, but there actually is an issue of hunger in the Jewish community,” said Sherman. “I think there’s a growing awareness of it, but I think that on the other hand, there are also many people who still are not aware that this is an issue and that many of these people live in our neighborhood — in Squirrel Hill, in Pittsburgh.”
It will take approximately six months for the asset test’s impact to become fully apparent, so for now, food banks are preparing for an increase in clientele.
“We feel we’ll see an increase in our clients, which will then lead to an increase in the cost of administering our program,” Abrams said; “because people who were originally eligible for SNAP who might lose their SNAP benefits due to an asset test will have no choice but to turn to a food pantry.”
When Abrams began working at the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry in 2006, 436 people relied on the organization. At the end of 2011, there were 1,255 unique clients.
“Unfortunately, problems related to food insecurity are not getting better, and food pantries and soup kitchens are doing more and helping more people than they ever had expected,” Abrams said.
One unique aspect of the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry is that kosher food is available for those who need it.
“The cost of purchasing kosher food versus nonkosher food is very high right now,” said Abrams. “So if more people who are Jewish and keep kosher are unable to receive SNAP [benefits], that will also increase the amount of food we’re purchasing for the food pantry.”
To be eligible for assistance from a food bank in Pittsburgh, you must show proof that your income is at 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Community members who are ineligible for assistance from SNAP can still seek out help from the food bank.
“I can’t say what the scope of that strain is going to be,” Sherman said of the unpredictable fallout from the asset test. “But regardless of whether that happens or not, we’re seeing an increase of clients in the past five years. We’re in a constant mode of trying to get more resources, make sure we have more food, more community drives.”
The goal at the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry is still the same. Help those in need until they are able to help themselves.
“We will turn no one away who is eligible for our services,” Abrams said. “We will always find a way to ensure we will provide food for someone who is eligible.”
(Ilana Yergin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)