Life may get harsher and hungrier for nearly three million people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey on Nov. 1, when food-stamp benefits will be cut overnight for the first time in U.S. history.

It will mean 21 lost meals per month for a family of four - devastating arithmetic for families already living either on the edge or within the abyss of poverty, according to experts on food stamps, now called SNAP for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Why now? The federal stimulus of 2009 had temporarily boosted SNAP benefits to combat the recession. But the increase ends on Halloween, and Congress - already poised to slash the SNAP budget - is unwilling to maintain the boost, experts say.

As a result, 47 million Americans who get food stamps, including 22 million children, will lose $5 billion in benefits in fiscal year 2014 alone.

That translates into $183 million taken from 1.8 million Pennsylvanians - $52 million from nearly 500,000 Philadelphia residents. About $90 million will be taken from nearly 900,000 New Jersey residents, federal figures show.

"We can't be stretched much more," said Josh Williams, 30, of Roxborough, a married father of a 10-month-old daughter who stands to lose about $30 from his $150 monthly SNAP allotment.

Williams depends on his wife, a waitress, to support the family and augment his $200-a-week unemployment check. It's not enough, and the family is now living below the $19,530 federal poverty line for a family of three.

"That $30 they're taking is rice, pasta - foods we need," said Williams, who has a degree in actuarial science from Temple University. He has been unable to find an entry-level position in his field because after the recession, such jobs were filled by people with years of experience.

For a college graduate who "did everything right," the need to use the federal safety net depressed and frustrated Williams.

"It took me four months to get my food stamps because the bureaucracy is so difficult," Williams said. "And now, they're making cuts on the poor. So many people think that people getting food stamps are all drug addicts. But millions of us are working people who just need help.

"The food stamps help. But they're something I wish we didn't have to use."

Things seem just as desperate across the Delaware River in Camden, where Dawn Cook, 47, a disabled former housekeeper and mother of two grown children faces cuts to her $67 monthly SNAP allotment.

"I don't know what'll happen, or how much they'll cut," said Cook, who receives $741 a month in disability pay, and finds herself living nearly $2,000 below the federal poverty level of $11,490 for a single person.

As it is, SNAP benefits pay for just about two weeks' worth of food, Cook said. The rest of the month she relies on food pantries.

"I just don't have enough money to get all the food I need," she said.

For a family of three, the November cut will be around $29 a month, a total of $319 for the period between November and September 2014, the remaining months of fiscal year 2014, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Washington-based center analyzes fiscal programs for the poor.

Ultimately, the cuts cannot be viewed as anything less than devastating, said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.

"People have no comprehension of what would happen without food stamps," she said. "Trying to trim the program is dramatically misguided thinking."

While certain segments of the population have lost SNAP benefits because of changes in eligibility through the years, "this is the first time there's been a cut in food-stamp benefits across the board," said Sharon Ward, director of the liberal-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center in Harrisburg.

Noting that many SNAP households include a person with a job, Ward said that "this is a program that benefits working families whose incomes simply don't pay all their expenses."

With the expiration of the stimulus boost looming, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, released a report last week showing just how important the benefits are.

Households receiving SNAP benefits experience significant drops in food insecurity, the condition in which a family lacks sufficient income to pay for enough food to support a healthy lifestyle. Mathematica Policy Research conducted the study, said to be the largest ever to measure SNAP's effects. For Congress to couple the November cuts with proposed dramatic decreases in SNAP benefits is "appalling," said Julie Zaebst, interim director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

"For the families that we serve, these changes will be unfathomable," she said, adding that she expects a deluge of phone calls from people confused and panicked about the cuts.

Spokeswomen for Pennsylvania and New Jersey have said both state governments are planning to officially notify SNAP recipients of the November cuts soon, adding that the exact dates aren't yet known.

When November comes, Josh Williams predicted, the poor will suffer profoundly.

"It's make or break time in this country for a lot of people," he concluded.

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com