Up to 47,700 West Virginians could lose their food stamp benefits next year unless they work part-time or take job-training classes.
The state Department of Health and Human Resources announced Monday that it is reinstating work and job-training requirements for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) benefits in nine counties — Kanawha, Putnam, Cabell, Monongalia, Berkeley, Harrison, Morgan, Jefferson and Marion.
The requirements take effect Jan. 1. The government will kick SNAP recipients out of the program if they fail to comply after three months. To keep food benefits, they must work or take part in workforce training programs at least 20 hours a week.
“Because of the unemployment rate in West Virginia, we tried to look at a smaller population,” said Nancy Exline, commissioner of the state Bureau for Children and Families. “These are counties where jobs and training opportunities are available, where these individuals would have the opportunity to meet the requirements and keep their SNAP benefits.”
The requirements apply to nondisabled SNAP recipients ages 18 to 49 who don’t have dependent children.
Advocates for low-income West Virginians said the DHHR’s announcement couldn’t come at a worse time.
“The policy change is really about imposing a time limit for food assistance, not a work requirement,” said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a left-leaning think tank. “This is a complicated rule, and there is a risk that otherwise eligible people will get kicked off, which has happened in other states.”
Tens of thousands of SNAP recipients have lost their food stamp benefits in other states, such as Maine and Indiana, that reinstated work and job-training requirements that had been suspended for years because of the economic downturn.
West Virginia last had the work requirements in 2011, and about 30 percent of SNAP recipients didn’t comply. If that holds true this time around, about 14,000 people in the nine counties would be kicked out of the program.
“Someone who works 18 hours a week and is looking for full-time work will lose benefits under this change,” Boettner said. “To voluntarily impose a time limit in these counties doesn’t make sense, given the region’s weak economic position.”
Many states suspended SNAP work or job-training requirements after the latest recession started in 2008. The federal government, which oversees the food assistance program, granted waivers to the states because of high unemployment rates.
The DHHR decided in August to reinstate the requirements after a four-year hiatus — but only in nine counties with the lowest unemployment rates. SNAP recipients have a better chance of finding jobs or training programs in those counties, according to the agency.
“We thought we could have the best outcomes for families if we piloted this in these [nine counties] to begin with,” Exline said. “We’re talking about food security.”
The DHHR sent letters to SNAP beneficiaries about the program change in October and earlier this month.
“We wanted to make sure individuals had more than one notification,” Exline said. “The federal government didn’t require a second notification.”
SNAP participants can apply for one of a handful of exemptions to the work and training requirements to keep their benefits. For instance, recipients taking part in drug or alcohol treatment programs can get an exemption. Pregnant women also are exempt.
More than 80 percent of SNAP recipients make less than $6,000 per year. The DHHR said it is working with workforce investment boards in Charleston, Huntington, White Hall and Martinsburg to help SNAP beneficiaries find jobs or training programs.
In September, Delegates Patsy Trecost, D-Harrison, and Danny Wagner, R-Barbour, unveiled proposed legislation that would take the SNAP work requirements statewide. Trecost and Wagner plan to introduce the bill during the upcoming legislative session, which starts next month. The legislation would block the DHHR from requesting work-requirement waivers anywhere in the state, starting July 1.
“We’re willing to help anybody but, at the same time, expecting them to help themselves, because we’re all going to have to be ‘in’ for this state to be successful,” Trecost said. “It’s good to see [the DHHR] stepping up to the plate, and we’re all on board to make the state better. This is the first step. The next step is to go statewide.”