Things are about to get rough for West Virginia families facing food insecurity, defined by the USDA as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
Some hits are coming from federal changes in COVID programs and some from state legislation. But the unkindest cut of all could come from a mean-spirited bill recently introduced in the legislature if it crosses the finish line.
All of these involve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, which provides basic food aid to around 167,000 households here.
As of March 1, pandemic-related emergency allotment increases for SNAP will cease. The average household here will receive a monthly reduction of $195 in benefits. The individual will see a reduction of $102, a net loss of $33 million in income to state businesses.
Then there’s this: when the federal Public Health Emergency ends in May, the suspension of work reporting requirements will end for able-bodied adults without dependents will end.
This means that a law passed in 2018 will go back into effect on July 1, imposing reporting requirements and hurdles for non-custodial low-income adults. As many as 24,000 could be pushed off if they can’t satisfy reporting requirements for work activities.
The 2018 bill was touted to promote workforce participation. In fact, it doubled down on a failed 2016 policy piloted in nine counties. A later DHHR report found that “Our best data does not indicate that [limiting benefits] has had a significant impact on employment figures.” People were just cut off and local businesses lost out.
Those are bad enough, but potentially much worse is House Bill 3484. It would add so many reporting, documenting and other bureaucratic restrictions for so many people as to make it unworkable both for people receiving help with food and for the beleaguered state agency that would have to administer the bill if it passes.
At a recent legislative committee meeting, a state agency representative testified that implementing the proposed legislation would actually cost state taxpayers millions of dollars while the additional requirements would reduce number of low-income people receiving food assistance. And that research has indicated that additional requirements reduce food assistance without increasing employment.
A representative of retail businesses testified that the loss of federal SNAP dollars would hurt local business and jobs, especially in rural counties.
Caitlin Cook, director of advocacy and public policy at Mountaineer Food Bank, which serves 48 of 55 counties, pointed out that the state food charity system is already overstretched and couldn’t make up for the loss of federal food aid. According to Cook, “For every one meal the food bank provides, SNAP provides nine, while simultaneously putting additional money into our local communities.”
Despite all the expert testimony, the bill passed out of committee and was reported to the floor of the House. At this writing its fate is unclear.
Aside from hungry people and local businesses, HB 3484 would also mean a loss for West Virginia farmers and farmers’ markets, which now offer SNAP Stretch, a program that allows people to double their purchasing power for fresh and locally grown food.
The bill goes against the grain of actions taken by political leaders in recent times. In 2021, for example, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, announced the creation of a Food Insecurity Workgroup “dedicated to utilizing every tool at West Virginia’s disposal to help reduce hunger throughout the state.”
The group met regularly to hear from experts in the field and made positive recommendations about increasing CARES Act funding to combat hunger. In December 2021, Governor Justice agreed, providing $7.25 million for food insecurity partners across the state. Reportedly, Speaker Hanshaw may reactivate the group.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jim Justice in his 2023 state of the state speech said that “We need to try with all in us to say, by God we’re not going to have hungry people in West Virginia today.”
The governor released a proclamation declaring Jan. 26 to be Hunger Free West Virginia Day, acknowledging that 217,690 people here, including 63,070 children are food insecure; one in six children experiences hunger regularly; and that many seniors have to chose between lifesaving medications and a healthy diet.
It had strong language, such as “it is essential to provide appropriate, healthy nutrition to all residents of West Virginia suffering from food insecurity;” “Charitable programs are unable to fully support those facing hunger. A combination of charity and government assistance programs is necessary to help bridge the meal gap;” and “food is a human right.”
The senate also weighed in last month with a resolution that stated “The West Virginia Senate recognizes food insecurity is prevalent in our communities, with 1-in-7 West Virginians not knowing where their next meal will come from…”
Things are challenging enough in West Virginia already, whether we’re talking low-income adults, kids, and seniors or people in local businesses, farmers, agencies, and charities. We don’t need a bad law to make a tough situation worse.
It’s sad but some people seem to derive gratification from harming people with less power than themselves, especially if they don’t think their targets can retaliate. Poor people are a convenient target for those who enjoy this kind of thing.
That’s what this is. That’s all this is.