Streamlining the assistance process and making it more user-friendly were among the goals laid out when state policymakers and community leaders met Wednesday at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for a discussion about how to best combat hunger and poverty in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
House Majority Policy Committee Chairman Dave Reed (R-Indiana) said Representative Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny) approached him earlier this summer about holding such an event.
Reed expressed "frustration with both parties at the national level seeming to want to talk about everything but a glaring problem that we have in America." He hopes starting the conversation in Pennsylvania will influence policymakers in other states and in the federal government. “We are one state in a nation of 50, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”
The Food Bank staff helped to organize the discussion, reaching out to groups like Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, Feeding Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center, Just Harvest, and Lutheran Advocacy Ministry of Pennsylvania, among others.
Representatives of the organizations shared their frustrations with a social safety net that includes dozens of programs that are not coordinated with one another.
As Rochelle Jackson, Public Policy Advocate for Just Harvest, explained, food security is not just about food.
“If we’re talking about hunger and combating hunger and helping people rise above poverty, then one of the ways we need to do that is to ensure that these people have the supportive services that they need, like childcare,” Jackson said.
Jackson said that without good-paying jobs, reliable transportation, healthcare, and childcare, poor families will never be able to get by without social safety net programs.
“We don’t want people to need our services anymore. We don’t want folks to live in those lifestyles where they need our services, and that’s our ultimate goal,” said Reed.
Ken Regal is the Executive Director of Just Harvest, and he said that much of the problem is a mischaracterization of what it means to be impoverished in the United States.
“The idea that there are these two groups of people in society… that there are these poor people and there are these un-poor people is the biggest mistake that we all make together,” Regal said.
Many in the room echoed Regal's sentiment, pointing out that after the recession hit in 2008, thousands of middle-class families suddenly found themselves living in poverty.
Rep. Wheatley agreed, saying when poverty is stigmatized, people are less likely to seek the help they need.
Another major issue raised by the group is the fact that different programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare) don’t coordinate with one another. This means that low-income people need to go through separate interview and application processes for each program, which can exacerbate transportation and childcare issues.
“There’s not a real good streamlined process where once you provide the information, it kind of can filter through to the other programs, where you’re not duplicating that effort. You’re not taking time away from your kids or your job or having to find transportation 14 different times a month,” said Reed.
Wheatley says he would like to see technological solutions to some of these problems.
“Why should I have to come all the way down to the welfare office by 4:30 or 5:30. Even if you kept it open to midnight, why should I have to come all the way down when we’re in the information age?” he asked.
He hopes that government can develop systems that customize the experience of applying for assistance, much like Google and Facebook customize advertisements based on users’ online activities.
Reed and Wheatley said they will take the information gleaned from the discussion and use it as a starting point to explore different aspects of hunger and poverty over the next several months, ultimately looking for solutions to these problems.
Preceding the discussion, participants toured the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and met with volunteers. Representative Marc Gergely (D-Allegheny) was also present for this portion of the event, but had to leave for another appointment before the discussion began.