Despite the rosy rhetoric, everything is not okay in West Virginia. Unemployment remains stubbornly high compared to the rest of the country, and, even as Appalachian counties overall seem to be on the rebound, West Virginia is not so lucky. We have seen a net increase in economic insecurity,with multiple counties heading in the wrong direction economically and most others stagnant per the latest report from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Yet, for many West Virginians, food assistance is about to get more difficult as nine more West Virginia counties’ residents will face more hurdles in accessing and keeping food assistance.
That is bad news for West Virginia, especially considering the latest data shows 65 percent of job openings through 2026 are projected to be low-wage jobs. Our neighbors who work as cashiers, in food service and as personal home aids often rely on SNAP to put food on the table.
On a bigger scale, SNAP helps communities when times get tough. It has a countercyclical effect economically. When communities are struggling, Federal SNAP dollars keep food on the table and grocery stores open until those communities get back on their feet. West Virginia has not fully recovered from the Great Recession and making it harder to access food assistance, or outright kicking people off of the program, would be harmful to many West Virginians trying to stay above water.
West Virginia is one of only two states that saw poverty its rate increase from 2016-2017, now having a poverty rate of 19.1 percent (4th highest in the country and a 1.2 percent increase from 2016), with an estimated 336,301 West Virginians, including 91,734 children living in poverty in 2017.
While there are many factors that influence why West Virginia is so poor, we cannot escape our collective responsibility to take ownership for decisions that push our neighbors who are struggling deeper into poverty and hopelessness.
Consider this, from May through December 2016, West Virginia enacted a pilot program in the nine counties with the lowest unemployment that required certain folks enrolled in SNAP to hold down 20 hours of work per week. If, after 120 days, they could not prove that they were meeting the requirement because work hours got cut, family duties like caring for a sick child, or maybe because they could not get to the DHHR office for paperwork, they would lose their food assistance.
The results show there was not a lot of wiggle room. West Virginia kicked over 5,400 struggling West Virginians off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through the 9-County pilot in 2016, making life harder for our neighbors and forcing them to wonder where their next meal will come from. DHHR’s own report (presented to the House Health Committee in 2017) admitted that there was no significant impact on employment through the implementation of the 9-County Pilot.
We didn’t just take food off tables — we took federal dollars out of our struggling economies. SNAP benefits are 100 percent federal dollars. Each SNAP dollar spent at grocery stores across West Virginia has an economic impact of $1.80. This impact is a crucial driver of our economy. Removing these dollars arbitrarily does not help our economic picture and is especially hard on rural communities because higher percentages of rural households throughout West Virginia depend on SNAP.
The DHHR 9-County Pilot did not boost employment, which should signal to the Justice administration to take a different direction concerning food assistance and workforce participation. Why waste time and increase hardship with a policy that has proven harmful? Moving forward with this policy at a time of increased poverty would be a waste of state resources and an unnecessary increase of hardship for thousands of West Virginians.
Instead of recognizing that punitive measures as they relate to federal food assistance have been a failure on both a human and economic level, the Justice administration has instead decided to double down. Beginning in early 2019, West Virginia will subject certain residents of nine more counties to punitive and arbitrary time limits as a condition of receiving SNAP. An estimated 822 people throughout Doddrige, Greenbrier, Hampshire, Monroe, Ohio, Pendleton, Preston, Taylor and Tucker will lose food assistance and West Virginia will miss out on an estimated $2 million in federal SNAP dollars.
This decision will have predictable results for communities across the state. Just as in the original nine counties in 2016, folks who struggle with lack of public transportation, child care options and unpredictable schedules that are all too common in low-wage industries will be left behind. And, just like in the original nine Counties, federal food assistance dollars will be yanked out from underneath communities, many of which are still trying to get back on their feet from the impact of the Great Recession.
If Governor Justice wants to get serious about addressing poverty, he should look at solutions that put more money in the pockets of those who make our economy run, like increasing the minimum wage to 15 dollars per hour. Ensuring folks have a living wage will become even more important if state policymakers want to help alleviate poverty as the state’s future jobs are more concentrated in low-wage work thru 2026. West Virginia can be the 30thstate to enact a state level Earned Income Tax Credit allowing West Virginia workers keep more of their income. Studies show an EITC benefits children by way of better health outcomes, higher educational attainments and greater earnings as adults.
One thing is for certain, punitive and bureaucratic measures that take food assistance away from struggling West Virginians while pulling crucial federal dollars out of local economies is not helping the poverty rate in West Virginia. It’s time to move away from punitive food assistance policies and embrace data driven solutions that work for our state and people.
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