The West Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill that would expand a work requirement for some people who receive federal food assistance.
House Bill 4001 would create a workforce requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents who receive food benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. According to federal data, West Virginians made use of half a billion dollars in SNAP benefits in Fiscal Year 2015 to a monthly average of just under 370,000 residents.
Under the bill, able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49 receiving SNAP benefits would be required to document 20 hours per week of work, workforce training or volunteerism.
Del. Chad Lovejoy argued against the measure and spoke about his involvement at the Huntington City Mission. He said the work requirement has put a burden on food banks and soup kitchens in Cabell County, which -- along with Berkeley, Harrison, Jefferson, Kanawha, Marion, Monongalia, Morgan, and Putnam counties -- was part of a work requirement pilot program that aimed to increase workforce participation.
“We had to go from three meals a day to two. I say [it was] gut wrenching because we knew that this meant that people would show up for food and we'd have to turn them away. We knew that some of them would go without food. We knew that some would say, ‘Well those those folks there at that mission they said they'd always be there for us. And now they're not,’” Lovejoy said.
He also attributed the increase in need at the mission to the SNAP work requirement in Cabell County as part of the pilot program.
“I'll tell you there was no massive influx of population in July 2016 in Huntington, no loss of a major employer. I believe in my heart that it was the implementation of the pilot program of this bill that nearly broke our back when all we were trying to do is to feed the hungry,” Lovejoy said.
Del. Mike Pushkin pointed out the results of a March 2017 report from the state Department of Health & Human Resources showing that the nine county pilot study on work requirements for SNAP benefits didn’t show increased workforce participation.
“We have the information from the department that says it doesn't do that. It hasn't put anybody back to work. It hasn't lowered unemployment [and it] hasn't increased workforce participation in those nine counties,” Pushkin said. “What it did do -- and like the gentleman from the 17th pointed out -- it has put a strain on food banks in those counties. It has put a strain on charitable organizations and churches in those nine counties -- that's what it what it did do.”
Another opponent of the bill, Del. Larry Rowe, argued that it will strip much-needed food from those who need it most. He says forcing the poor to stay hungry will cause some to become angry -- and possibly more likely to commit crimes while trying to survive.
“Now what this bill's going to do is to encourage ‘hangriness’ and aggressiveness in the very population that we don't want to be aggressive or 'hangry.' It's a terrible bill,” Rowe said. “It's a bill that is going to take food out of the mouths of people and, ladies and gentlemen, they are people. And if you're homeless or you're very poor, you don't have a car. You can't be driving off to someplace to volunteer or to work.”
Exemptions to the work requirement include those who are disabled, pregnant, or giving care to a child, an incapacitated adult or anyone over the age of 65. An amendment adopted by the House Judiciary Committee would also exempt veterans.
Del. Tom Fast, the lead sponsor of House Bill 4001, called the group who would fall under the work requirement as “very narrow.” Like other supporters, he said the bill aims to get people back to work and less dependent on assistance.
“We do not help a person by perpetuating dependence upon government. Again, if you would just look at the definition of able-bodied person and what is excluded from that definition. These are the people who simply choose not to work,” Fast said.
Del. Michael Folk also spoke in favor of the bill, noting how Del. Fast mentioned various people who had told him they wouldn’t fall under the conditions that call for the work requirement.
“What's going on in this country and this state is systemic. This is not asking too much and all this demagoguery we've heard today saying 'you're going to take food out babies mouths.' -- it's just that. The gentleman over here from Fayette gave you example after example of all these people that testified that the bill wouldn't apply [to them.]”
House Bill 4001 passed on a 78-19 vote, with many Democrats voting in favor. The bill now heads across the rotunda to the Senate.