Economic downturns and welfare reforms have been blamed.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The number of Pennsylvanians on food stamps grew more than 20 percent over the past four years, mirroring increases nationwide spurred by changes to welfare reform laws passed a decade ago.
About 917,000 people in Pennsylvania received $900 million of food stamps in 2003 and 2004, up about 22 percent from 2000 and 2001. Nationwide, food stamp rolls have grown nearly 24 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Among the new people on Pennsylvania's rolls is Shelia Weaver, 48, of Moon, who lost her job as a nursing aide because of medical problems and divorced her husband. She has been using food stamps for two years to feed herself and her 12-year-old son.
Besides more Pennsylvanians possibly hitting hard times from the economic downturn, state and federal officials point to changes in welfare-to-work rules that restored eligibility to people who lost food stamps as part of welfare reforms begun in 1996.
About 1.3 million of the state's 12.4 million residents are eligible for food stamps based on income, according to the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center. About 67 percent of low-income Pennsylvanians received food stamps in 2003, above the national rate of 61.5 percent, according to the USDA.
"This notion that welfare as we know it ended was one of the contributing factors to the big caseload declines we see in the 1996, 1997 and 1998 period," said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center, a research and public policy center that serves as the hub of an anti-hunger network.
Four years ago, 2.5 million more people nationwide became eligible for food stamps when a rules change allowed states to set their own limits on the value of vehicles that families can own and still get food stamps. Before the change, the federal limit of $4,650 had increased just $150 since 1977. Pennsylvania excludes at least one vehicle.
A 2002 overhaul of federal agriculture programs also increased the number of people eligible for food stamps by allowing low-income families getting off welfare to receive food stamps for an additional five months. It also allowed immigrants who have lived in the country for at least five years to apply for food stamps.
Pennsylvania has also begun efforts to let people know about food stamp eligibility and made it easier to apply, said Ed Zogby, director of policy development for the office of income maintenance at the state Department of Public Welfare.
Applications for food stamps, which are available on the Internet, are eight pages long; some states in the past used applications that were up to 30 pages long. Pennsylvania also requires that food stamp recipients only report earnings every six months, as opposed to every month.
The state is planning radio advertisements in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to let people know about food stamps, Zogby said.