Ivelisse Ferreras’ face is still swollen from the punch to the jaw she took last week. The small corner store she owns in North Philadelphia, D’Ferreras at Sixth and Indiana Streets, was recently robbed at gunpoint, and she was hit with the handle of a pistol. A few days later, though, as she and a male employee sit behind the now somewhat ironic bulletproof glass that frames the store’s wooden counter, she’s barely fazed—probably because she’s got lots of other things to worry about.
“Most of our customers live off food stamps,” she says through a 3-by-3-foot hole in the glass. “Because of the cuts and all that, there are dramatic changes. Nobody knows how much this is affecting us.”
In D’Ferreras’ neighborhood, the 19133 zip code in North Philly, more than 50 percent of all households receive federal benefits from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, long known as food stamps. That’s the highest proportion in the city, according to statistics provided by the Greater Philadelphia Hunger Coalition. On Nov. 1, legislation went into effect that cut those benefits by five percent across the board, nationwide—a return to pre-recession benefit levels. The problem is that those numbers don’t correlate to the unemployment rate; while unemployment nationally is down from its 2009 high of 10 percent, it’s still not back to where it was before the economy crashed. Also since 2009, prices for everything ranging from soybeans to wheat to dairy products—you know, the stuff that makes up food—have gone up.
The result: Half of Ferreras’ customers have even less money to buy food than they did a month ago—which wasn’t that much in the first place. She says it’s been her business’s worst month (and this year the worst year) since she opened in 2008. The impact has been immediate. For one thing, when her security cameras blew out two weeks ago, she didn’t have the money to get them fixed. If things continue spiraling downward through the new year, she may have to close.
It’s a common story. Across the country, tales have popped up throughout the economic downturn of whole towns surviving on SNAP benefits—and of local businesses experiencing the bulk of their profits in the first week of each month. (That’s the time when the rationed government cash hits recipients’ benefits cards.) A few blocks from D’Ferreras, a young man working behind the counter at J&J Grocery at Second and Cambria says at least 70 percent of his customers on any given day pay with food stamps—“more at the beginning of the month than the end.” Employees at numerous markets and corner stores, including Lehigh Avenue’s AVP Grocery and Galan’s Services, tell of similar circumstances.
This neighborhood—the 1.3 square-mile area between Lehigh and Allegheny, Front and Broad—doesn’t just have the city’s highest hunger rate but its highest poverty rate, too: The median income per household here is $13,828. The unemployment rate is around 10 percent, which is about average for the city as a whole—except that the official unemployment figure only counts those people who are currently eligible to receive unemployment benefits and seeking work. In reality, a full 61 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are not included in the labor force numbers at all—and thus less than a third of its residents are actually working.
A 2010 study ranked Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District, which includes this part of North Philly (as well as parts of Northeast, Center City, South Philly, Southwest and Chester), as the hungriest district in the nation. And though the overall district has seen its hungry population (technically) go down in the past three years, this area of the district has gotten considerably worse, as the poverty has trickled down to area businesses—mostly corner stores, gas stations and auto repair.
Since the food-stamp cuts have further impacted her bottom line, Ferreras says, she and her partner have begun looking for extra work on top of running their store. She doesn’t have medical coverage and admits that while she hasn’t looked for a health plan through the Affordable Care Act yet, she fears she’ll be able to afford neither insurance nor the inevitable fine when she doesn’t sign up. “If you can’t afford medical coverage right now, if you can’t pay bills—people are relying on LIHEAP and all these other grants, and when they’re out, they’re out,” she says. “I can’t pay for medical coverage, how are you going to pay a fine?”
One volunteer at Operation 2nd Chance, a shelter facility at Fifth and York that used to also double as a food pantry, worries that the poverty is continuing to get worse. “If you’re in Philly, and you drive around and you have food, you see the lines are double [what they once were].”
The short-term effects will be felt during the holiday season, says the volunteer, who asks to remain anonymous, as several local food pantries and nonprofits that usually hand out turkeys for families in need will likely not have the same amount of food to distribute as they have in the past. The long-term ramifications, he suggests—taking into account that more cuts in government programs are inevitable if nothing changes—are worse.
“I see riots,” he says. “Riots. They keep cutting, there are gonna be riots. I’m worried about everything, you know, because if the government can’t get its act together—” He pauses. “Look, we can’t really be depending on the government for anything anymore. We, the poor people around here—we’re waiting for the worst.”
Follow Randy LoBasso’s “Purplevania” series about Pa.’s political and cultural struggles via regular Twitter updates at @PhillyWeekly.