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Photo: United Way of Lackawanna and Wayne Counties , License: N/A

For a donation of $500 (or $5 per card) to the United Way’s Emergency Heating Fund, you will receive 100 Gift of Warmth cards to insert in your corporate holiday cards to clients, vendors and customers.

The 2013 holiday gift bag in northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) is mixed with good and bad news and includes an impassioned call to the business community for financial help.
Once again, The United Way of Lackawanna and Wayne Counties is administering its annual holiday program called The Gift of Warmth to assist low-income people who are financially unable to pay for fuel to heat their homes. Through The Gift of Warmth, both businesses and individuals can donate to an emergency fuel fund which fills in frigid gaps left behind by the federally-funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
As in previous years, participation in The Gift of Warmth involves the purchase of corporate or personal pledge cards that go inside holiday greetings. These cards, which can be sent to friends and business associates, state that instead of a holiday gift, a donation was made in the name of the recipient to help with heating costs for the needy.
The cards have proven popular in past years and recipients appreciate the charitable gesture in lieu of yet another paperweight or mug.
“The Gift of Warmth allows a business or individual to hand out the traditional holiday greetings and, in the process, donate to an extremely worthwhile cause,” says Peg Kopko, vice president of community impact with the United Way of Lackawanna and Wayne Counties.
Kopko explains that instability with human services funding, at all levels of government, have been plaguing efforts to help the needy. In addition, state government has a tendency, during the past few winters, to not release LIHEAP funding when it is needed most.
Meanwhile, The Gift of Warmth has achieved a track record of success. Last winter, the program assisted 175 families in Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties with fuel purchases that each averaged at least $300.
“The Gift of Warmth features no minimum donation and none of the donated money is spent on administration of the program,” says Kopko. “The funds also have helped with cases of emergency furnace repair and replacement, which are terribly expensive.”
Despite a slowly improving national economy, the financial state of human service organizations in NEPA is still precarious, according to Kopko. She says that many requests for help with heat, food and shelter are not being met due to declines in federal and state assistance, and that economic troubles with mortgage and rent payments can explode into real emergencies.
The United Way is also dealing with increasing numbers of retirees who are being forced to make tough decisions about how to use limited incomes. Kopko emphasizes that she has been shocked by the number of seniors who still have mortgage payments.
“It’s also troubling to see the number of people who have withdrawn from their IRA funds to meet the needs of an adult child,” says Kopko. “Overall, this is all part of an ongoing crisis with funding for society’s needs.”

Horrific timing

The bad news in NEPA’s holiday gift bag involves the timing of cuts to the federal food program called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Beginning this fall,  monthly SNAP payments to help buy food will be reduced by $11 for one person and $65 for a family of five. The SNAP benefits had been temporarily raised by stimulus spending but now that temporary money is gone.
Gretchen Hunt, registered dietician, serves as director of nutrition programs with the regional Commission on Economic Opportunity and administers SNAP in NEPA. She explains that one out of six people in the United States receive assistance from SNAP or the Women, Infants, and Children Food and Nutrition Service (WIC).
According to Hunt, a whopping total of 1,822,537 individuals in Pennsylvania received SNAP benefits in July. In the four counties served by the CEO/Weinberg Food Bank in Luzerne, Lackawanna, Wyoming, and Susquehanna counties, 97,887 individuals received SNAP benefits, totaling $12,018,121 or an average of $122.78 per person.
“Pain will undoubtedly result from these recent cuts to SNAP, and the timing of the cuts right before Christmas is especially troubling,” says Hunt. “Even a drop of $11 will force some tough decisions, like avoiding the purchase of staples, such as milk.”
Hunt believes NEPA’s business community will also be affected by the SNAP cutbacks. Many economists believe every dollar of SNAP spending creates $5 of economic impact.
“For our grocers, the food purchases will not be replaced — this is a loss to the bottom line,” says Hunt. “Tighter food budgets will undoubtedly spur many SNAP recipients to buy at deep discount retail outlets and the dollar store chains, further hurting our local grocers.”

Holiday sadness

The impact of the pre-holiday SNAP cuts on families, according to Hunt, will be amplified by the cumulative effects of high costs for heating fuel, ongoing job loss and the depressed regional economy. She expects more negative situations to develop for more regional families, with many situations becoming desperate.
“It’s a scary situation when increasing segments of our society spin out of control and fall to the economic bottom,” says Hunt. “These situations often turn out ugly. This is not a philosophical or political situation, but a real place where families descend and find it very hard to climb out of.”
In response ongoing accusations that SNAP is filled with fraud, Hunt responds that documented SNAP fraud is actually very low — in the 1-percent to 2-percent range. Additionally, if a SNAP recipient averages $3.96 per day per day, it means that individual is receiving assistance of only $1.32 per meal.
Hunt issues a holiday plea to the NEPA business community to help the less fortunate. She reminds all NEPA residents that they undoubtedly know someone who has fallen on hard times.
“Please, during this joyous season, give generously to the charity of your choice,” says Hunt.