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WV Lawmakers Consider Hurdles To Getting Food Assistance

West Virginia lawmakers are considering imposing work requirements on people seeking federal food aid, but many of those people have barriers to employment. (West Virginia Center on Budget And Policy)
West Virginia lawmakers are considering imposing work requirements on people seeking federal food aid, but many of those people have barriers to employment. (West Virginia Center on Budget And Policy)
March 27, 2017

CHARLESTON, W. Va. -- Bills to put hurdles in the way of people seeking federal food aid are cruel and counterproductive, say advocates for the poor.

Senate Bill 60 and companion House Bill 2132 would put asset tests and possibly work requirements on West Virginians seeking help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Seth DiStefano, coordinator with the West Virginia Food Security Coalition, said once the cost of implementing the new rules is accounted for, these new barriers might save the state budget a few hundred thousand dollars. But he said they would cost West Virginia's poor - and the West Virginia economy - millions in federal funds.

"They support the kid bagging your groceries. They support the truck drivers who deliver your groceries to the grocery store,” DiStefano said. “[We would be] Going to all this bureaucratic effort to lose out on federal dollars that help feed people."

The bills' sponsors argue new rules for the program formerly known as food stamps would weed out fraud by people trying to take unfair advantage of the government benefits.

In any given month, about 350,000 West Virginians buy food with a SNAP card. The average benefit is about $200 a month, and a large portion of those getting SNAP benefits are children, seniors or the disabled.

The bills would disqualify applicants who have more than a few thousand dollars in assets. DiStefano argued the state should be encouraging these very poor households to save, not penalizing them for it.

"We are not going to solve generational poverty in this state if we punish families for saving for their kids' future, which is really what household asset tests do,” he said.

The bills differ, but could put work requirements on some able-bodied adults getting food aid. DiStefano said there are barriers to work for many of those folks; lack of transportation, training, or available jobs, for example.

He said the state tried work requirements in a nine-county pilot project. But while thousands lost benefits, DiStefano said state referrals from an employment program suggest only a few hundred actually went to work.

"Really, the only thing that happens is thousands of people get kicked off of SNAP,” he said. "We're not moving the needle on work."

SB 60 will be up for debate on the Senate floor on Monday.

More information on the SNAP program in West Virginia is available at WVPolicy.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV