When you enter the home of any West Virginian, you will be asked two questions: Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?
Making sure folks’ basic needs are taken care of is central to who we are as West Virginians. We look after one another, especially when communities are dealing with tough times. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is an extension of these core values.
From the loyal daughter who is looking after an elderly parent to the veteran with undiagnosed PTSD to the aunt who takes in her brother’s kids as her own because of a tragedy related to the opioid crisis, SNAP supports and looks after folks all across West Virginia that none of us would ever want to hurt or let down.
House Bill 4001 is a clear and cruel departure from our collective promise as a state to never turn our backs on those in need. The legislation (currently awaiting action from Gov. Justice) doubles down on failed policy that would leave thousands of our most vulnerable neighbors to go hungry and ship untold millions of federal food assistance dollars out the door.
The legislation institutes a harsh three-month time limit on a select group of West Virginians who are struggling to find work, with very little consideration for the realities these unemployed workers face. The truth is the vast majority of SNAP recipients who can work do work. In fact, research shows nearly three-quarters of adults on SNAP either work at that time or within a year of starting to participate in the program. SNAP recipients often work in jobs with low pay, inconsistent schedules and no benefits, and because low-wage work is often unstable, adults sometimes turn to SNAP when they are between jobs.
And no one finds it surprising that so many of our neighbors who rely on SNAP to put food on the table work. I know coal miners across the state who would love 20 hours of overtime a week, not just 20 to maintain the very modest SNAP benefits that keep the bottom falling out from underneath of them.
In addition, lack of access to transportation, undiagnosed mental illness, a criminal record from a past mistake or simply living in a part of the state whose economy has been devastated and will need decades to recover (southern WV) are all very plausible reasons why someone would have difficulty holding down 20 hours of work per week.
But HB 4001 takes a black and white approach to our struggling brothers and sisters. Rather than addressing the real challenges that they face in gaining meaningful and steady employment, HB 4001 punishes them for being unemployed. Taking away food from people struggling to make ends meet and to find work will just make it harder for them to get their feet back on the ground.
HB 4001 does not represent who we are as a state or how we treat our people. We urge Gov. Justice to veto HB 4001 and to ensure that our fellow West Virginians who are struggling to make ends meet are not pushed deeper into poverty.
Seth DiStefano serves as policy outreach director
for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.