West Virginians who receive food stamp benefits spent $52.5 million last year at stores outside the state, according to a report requested by Delegate Jill Upson, R-Jefferson.
West Virginia residents used their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) debit cards to make $1 million in purchases in both Florida and North Carolina, $580,000 in South Carolina and $343,000 in Minnesota.
Food stamp recipients in the Mountain State also rang up their cards — albeit for significantly smaller amounts — in Alaska, California, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, according to a report by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
About 11.5 percent of SNAP benefits were spent at out-of-state stores, mostly in states that border West Virginia.
“This report raises red flags that might help us identify possible waste, fraud or abuse of these benefits,” Upson said. “While it’s understandable that large amounts of money may be spent in our border states, the fact that so much money is spent in far-off and popular vacation destinations is concerning.”
Federal regulations allow West Virginia SNAP recipients to use their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards at any approved grocer in the United States. Food stamp beneficiaries from outside West Virginia can do the same here.
“The DHHR is not allowed to restrict the use of SNAP benefits to be used solely in West Virginia,” said DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling. “Federal regulations mandate that individuals have access to SNAP-approved grocers across state lines.”
Purchases in states that don’t border West Virginia totaled about $6 million — or 1.3 percent of the $457 million spent by West Virginia beneficiaries last year.
Asked why a West Virginia SNAP recipient would be using a card to buy groceries in Hawaii, a DHHR spokeswoman responded: “In that scenario, [a mother] may have a son in military stationed there, and he brings his mother for a visit. The mother has SNAP benefits and uses them at a SNAP-approved grocer.”
About one in five West Virginians receive food stamp benefits — the third highest percentage of any state in the nation. The DHHR reported that the state had 355,440 people on food stamps last month.
Welfare recipients in West Virginia also are using EBT cards to pay for living expenses in other states.
The DHHR’s report showed that $2.5 million was spent outside West Virginia by recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The TANF beneficiaries can use their cards for most any purchase or to get cash from ATMs or at grocery stores and convenience stores.
Like food stamp spending, most out-of-state transactions by West Virginia TANF recipients were in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky.
“The fact that 30 of West Virginia’s 55 counties adjoin border states, coupled with the essentially rural nature of West Virginia’s counties, may be a driving factor in the volume of transactions conducted in neighboring states,” Bowling wrote in a letter to Upson.
Last month, the DHHR reinstated work and job-training requirements for SNAP recipients in nine counties — Kanawha, Putnam, Cabell, Monongalia, Berkeley, Harrison, Morgan, Jefferson and Marion. To keep food benefits, beneficiaries must work or take part in workforce training programs at least 20 hours a week.
The government will kick SNAP recipients out of the program if they fail to comply within three months. The DHHR estimates that 28,000 people could lose their food stamp benefits.
Upson has introduced a bill to crack down on fraud in public-assistance programs.
The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee is expected to take up similar legislation later today.
“We need to make sure [the] DHHR has all the tools it needs to meet the needs of West Virginians, as well as root out potential abuses of the system,” Upson said.
Bowling said the DHHR routinely monitors the SNAP and TANF programs for fraud and abuse.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.