CHARLESTON — After completing her prison sentence for operating a clandestine meth-amphetamine lab, Tracy Jividen began to restart her life.
She went to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to sign up for food assistance, which she had been on prior to her felony drug conviction.
"The form said, 'Do you have a drug charge/and I checked the box honestly without thinking about the effect it would have on me," Jividen, 38, of Charleston, said.
A federal law enacted during the height of the "War on Drugs" prohibits those with felony drug convictions from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits. This meant while Jividen was rebuilding her life and struggling to make ends meet, she had to scrimp off the food she bought using the SNAP benefits her children received or she went hungry. That hunger, while not the only reason, was a big part of why Jividen found herself back in prison without custody of her children, she said.
But thanks to a bill passed this year by the West Virginia Legislature exempting the state from the federal law, people like Jividen — who have served their time for nonviolent crimes — can now receive SNAP benefits.
House Bill 2549 went into effect Tuesday, adding West Virginia to the list of 48 states exempt from the federal ban. Now people who were previously ineligible for SNAP due to a drug felony conviction will be able to apply for SNAP through DHHR. People whose drug felony crime resulted in a person's injury or death, or that involved the fraudulent use of SNAP, will still be ineligible.
Officials say the exact number of people who will now be eligible to apply for SNAP under the new law is difficult to pin down. However, according to DHHR, in 2016 alone over 2,100 people applied for and were denied SNAP due to the ban. This number does not account for people who never tried to apply because they were aware they were ineligible due to their conviction or those who were denied in other years. The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy estimates up to 15,000 West Virginians will benefit from the change.
"This new policy going into effect is a big deal for thousands of people in our state, especially for those in recovery and who have just been released from prison, who are trying hard to put the pieces of their life back together," said Lida Shepherd, with the American Friends Service Committee, in a release. "Food security for these individuals is vital to their success reintegrating back into their community."
Jividen said being food insecure led her to cash faulty checks for food and she caught
more charges, while also relapsing.
"I lost my kids due to my drug addiction," Jividen said. "It all turned out not necessarily because I didn't get food stamps, but being hungry played a big part."
The ban even made it hard on her as she went through addiction treatment at Recovery Point Charleston, a nonprofit that relies on clients receiving assistance to mitigate costs for the totally free treatment program.
"I couldn't support myself while I was in rehab," she said. "Thank God he took care of me and I didn't get kicked out and I was able to turn it around."
Jividen no longer needs to receive SNAP because she is working with J.H. Tomblin Fence Co. In fact, she did her interview with The Herald-Dispatch while on a job site, building a fence that overlooks a dam in West Virginia.
"I was so depressed and down and out," she said. "I am a statistic that went back out because they are down and out. I do know people that are out in that madness and can't feed themselves. They steal food or are turned away at food banks because there is such a need now. It's a dead-end road. This is amazing that West Virginia has turned this new leaf. People will be able to feed themselves."
Jividen said she doesn't think anyone thought through what it meant for actual people when they enacted the ban, but she is excited for the future.
"We will see the crime rate go down because people are less hungry," she said. "Statistics will prove this is helping, not hurting."
Jividen thanked God for giving her the courage to use her voice to share her story and help enact change.
"I do have a position that I don't need food stamps anymore, but I speak out for the people that do need them," she said. "Don't give up. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can reach goals if you keep on trying. Look at me. I'm living proof that it can be done. There is a God. Just reach out."
As of Tuesday, people may apply in person at their county DHHR office, call DHHR to request an application by mail, or apply online at https://www.wvinroads.org/selfservice/.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.