The Justice Administration appears to be pursuing changes to the state’s food assistance program that the House of Delegates rejected earlier this year.
In presentations to lawmakers in recent months, the state Department of Health and Human Resources has outlined features of Senate Bill 60, which passed the Senate, but not the House. Among many troubling and costly provisions was an effort to add work requirements as a condition for some people to receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
The people in question are called ABAWDs, administrative jargon for Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents.
Sounds reasonable, right? Able-bodied adults should be working, and if they don’t have any children, there is no worry about harming kids by withholding benefits from such a household.
But life is more complex than that.
West Virginia actually tried this in nine pilot counties. To its credit, DHHR chose to test the work requirement in counties with some of the best job opportunities — Berkeley, Cabell, Harrison, Jefferson, Kanawha, Marion, Monongalia, Morgan and Putnam.
According to DHHR’s own report, the requirement had no effect on moving people into work. It did, however, cut off food assistance to more than 5,400 people.
Something else must be going on. Here’s one clue from the same report: DHHR made 13,984 employment and training referrals during the pilot effort in 2016. Of those, 259 got jobs, just under 2 percent. Think how much worse it would be if DHHR also applied the work requirement in the rest of the state, where unemployment is routinely over 7 percent and can be as high as 13 percent. DHHR could ask the federal government for permission to do exactly that.
For what? The average SNAP benefit is about $203 a month. The federal money saved would be left in Washington for the people of other states to use.
There are broader implications. Food benefits are spent in local communities. DHHR estimates that enforcing work requirements for childless adults statewide would affect 7,310 people and take almost $17.825 million out of West Virginia’s economy in a year.
Grocery money tends to be spent locally. Seth DiStefano of the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy says there are communities in West Virginia where, without SNAP money flowing in, the only food stores would close, making it more difficult for all people to get food, and diminishing even that small bit of economic activity.
So why are DHHR officials still talking about this? About the only people who appear to be for it are from the Naples, Fla.-based Foundation for Government Accountability. That group counts among its goals stopping Medicaid expansion, another effort that helps the lowest-income workers, or aspiring workers.
The idea seems to be based on the false assumption that hunger will give West Virginians incentive to work. If going hungry solved West Virginians’ problems, the state would have cured poverty long ago, DiStefano observed. “West Virginia has been food insecure for generations,” he said.
Gov. Jim Justice has said he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and we believe him. He can stop pursuit of this harmful change with a word. Perhaps he can change some attitudes, as well.
Taking food from people who are already struggling is no way to help West Virginians improve their circumstances.