As of January 1, the West Virginia Department of Human Resources (DHHR) has added a so-called work requirement to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Under the policy, adults aged 18 to 50 with no dependent children must participate in a work or educational activity for a monthly average of 20 hours per week in order to maintain SNAP eligibility, with some exceptions. In West Virginia, there are about 37,000 adults who could lose SNAP benefits from this policy change.
Federal law limits able-bodied adults to three months of SNAP out of every three years unless they are working at least 20 hours a week, participating in a work training program at least 20 hours a week, or participating in some other workfare program. States can request a waiver of these limits in areas of high unemployment, and most states waived the time limit statewide during the recession and slow recovery. Now WV’s DHHR is letting the waiver expire for nine West Virginia counties.
Unemployment in West Virginia has risen sharply in the past year, even as it had never fully recovered from the recession. Now the state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 39,000 fewer West Virginians employed now than there were before the recession.
Even in the nine counties chosen by DHHR to let the waiver expire, the economy has not fully recovered. While they were chosen because their unemployment rates are low, there are more unemployed workers and fewer employed workers in those nine counties than there were before the recession.
With the slow recovery contributing to a weak job market in West Virginia, many people have trouble finding enough to eat. The share of households in West Virginia experiencing food insecurity has grown from 8.8 percent in the early 2000s to 15.3 percent in 2012-2014, a full percentage point higher than the national average, while nearly one in five West Virginians is living in poverty.
With fewer West Virginians working than before the recession, even in the counties with the lowest unemployment rates, it’s clear that many still need help while they search for jobs. But DHHR has decided to limit SNAP for able-bodied, childless adults to just three months of basic food assistance during a three-year period if they aren’t working in nine counties.
To be clear, the policy change is a time limit, not a work requirement. Calling it a work requirement suggests that it encourages people to look for work and provides a training or workfare position to everyone subject to the time limit. However, individuals working up to 20 hours per week and those looking for work are still terminated from SNAP after three months. An able-bodied adult without dependents must work 20 hours a week, participate in a job training program for 20 hours a week, or perform workfare in order to receive more than three months of benefits.
While DHHR has suggested that there are sufficient slots in employment and training programs to accommodate all of the recipients who may need them in order to maintain SNAP eligibility, as WVCBP friend Betty Rivard asks, it is unclear whether recipients will have the transportation they need, or the type of training that improves their skills and moves them toward available jobs. Further, administering the provision is a complex and difficult task. Identifying who on the caseload is qualified, screening for exemptions, tracking months of participation, and monitoring hours worked and participation in training programs requires new systems, forms and notices as well as substantial training and support of eligibility workers. States need time and resources to prepare.
Those at risk of losing their SNAP eligibility are an extremely poor and vulnerable group. Individuals subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of approximately 17 percent of the poverty line (or about $2,000) and over 80 percent have incomes below half of the federal poverty line, and they typically qualify for no other income support. Many face significant barriers to work, such as returning from military service, homelessness, felony convictions, a lack of transportation, or lack of a high school diploma.
Food benefits are paid for with federal dollars and are already very modest, averaging about $150 to $170 per person per month for this group. Denying these benefits to the unemployed will do nothing to create new jobs and will not save the state any money. What it will do is increase food hardship and the burden on local food banks struggling to serve the hungry. People who will be cut off from food assistance because of this rule are some of the poorest people in the state who, for the most part, are not eligible for other types of assistance. Now, it will be harder for them to eat.
Most West Virginians would likely agree that it is unfair—not to mention uncompassionate—to deny food assistance to someone who is searching for a job, but is unable to find one because of a shortage of jobs. But that is exactly what the administration’s policy change is poised to do.
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