CHARLESTON - A bill that would impose a work requirement to be eligible to receive public assistance is being criticized as harmful to West Virginia's poor as well as local businesses, but lawmakers proposing the bill say the goal is to make sure the benefits are being used by those who really need them.
House Bill 4001 would implement work requirements for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits ages 18 to 49 without dependents in counties where the Department of Health and Human Resources deems there to be sufficient opportunities for work or volunteerism.
Recipients would need to work at least 20 hours a week, participate in a work program or do certified volunteer work.
The bill also requires DHHR to conduct an asset test on all members of the applicant's household to determine eligibility. The bill outlines a number of different databases and avenues DHHR should use to determine a person's assets. The bill uses federal code to determine what an allowable asset for eligibility is.
Lead sponsor of the bill, Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, said the purpose of the asset check is to weed out those who do not truly need assistance.
DHHR may contract a third-party to "develop a system to provide a service or verify income, assets and identity eligibility of applicants to prevent fraud, misrepresentation and inadequate documentation when determining eligibility for public assistance."
The bill also specifically outlaws use of EBT cards to purchase items ranging from alcohol to tickets to sporting events, and requires DHHR to begin tracking out-of-state spending.
Fast said the goal of the bill is to ensure taxpayer money is not being abused.
"I have consistently heard people just in conversation make complaints of seeing people purchase things with an EBT card - luxury-type items - using the cards and then going out and getting in a luxury SUV," Fast said. "It is something I hear not just in my district but in areas all around the state."
The goal is not to get people back to work, Fast said, but it could be a welcome byproduct. Researchers with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, however, believe work requirements for any type of public assistance do more harm than good.
During an edit board meeting with The Herald-Dispatch this month, Seth DiStefano, policy and outreach director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said workforce requirements indiscriminately harm poor West Virginians, as well as the charities forced to fill the void left by SNAP.
"When food assistance dollars are removed, hunger doesn't go away," DiStefano said. "All that's left is for people to go to these places that can't meet the increased demand."
It's a fact that is proven by just looking at the Huntington City Mission, he said.
Cabell is one of nine West Virginia counties that fell under the federal Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents SNAP requirement, which is similar to the requirement laid out in HB 4001. The nine counties were selected because they had the lowest unemployment rate.
The requirement began in 2016. From May 2016 to January 2017, 1,131 SNAP cases were closed. At the same time, the number of meals served at the Huntington City Mission spiked and never went back down.
The mission has been unable to keep up with demand under their budget restraints, having to cut staff and cut back on meals served. Mission director Mitch Webb told The Herald-Dispatch in September they are serving more than 10,000 meals a month, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago.
DiStefano said work requirements do not take into account the seemingly able-bodied people who cannot work, such as veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said there are also those who do not technically have dependents, but are still caring for others in their household.
SNAP benefits are distributed to households based on need - the closer to, or further below, the poverty line, the more benefits received. On average, each SNAP beneficiary receives around $116 per month, the CBPP reports - equating to around $1.29 per person per meal. Working households, with at least one member in the workforce, receive on average $256 per month. More than 64 percent of SNAP households have children and receive on average $374 in benefits per month.
"Food insecurity," or the struggle to secure a nutritionally sound diet, was found in 15 percent of West Virginia households, the CBPP states. Approximately 18 percent of the state's population lives below the poverty line, including 24.6 percent of children and 8.5 percent of the elderly.
Aside from its direct beneficiaries, SNAP has proven itself a reliable avenue in flooding the state economy as federal money is used for purchases at local retailers. In 2016, SNAP funds pumped nearly $500 million into West Virginia's economy, the CBPP states - every $1 in SNAP benefits generating around $1.70 in economic activity.
Fast said those federal tax dollars need to stay in the state and this bill would help ensure that.
House Bill 4001 has been referred to the House Health and Human Resources Committee for consideration.
Reporter Bishop Nash contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.
Percent of households receiving SNAP benefits, by county:
Cabell: 18.1 percent
Mason: 18.9 percent
Putnam: 9.7 percent
Lincoln: 23.1 percent
Wayne: 18.3 percent
Mingo: 28.1 percent
Logan: 20.0 percent
Boone: 22.3 percent
Wyoming: 22.2 percent
McDowell: 29.6 percent
Raleigh: 18.2 percent
Kanawha: 15.0 percent
State average: 16.1 percent
National average: 13.2 percent
Source: Food Research and Action Center