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Bill requiring asset test for food-stamp recipients heads to WV House


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate has passed a bill that would, among other things, require an asset test for food-stamp recipients. Senate bill 60 has been referred to the House Health committee and then to House Judiciary committee.

The bill would limit assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to households with less than $2,000 in assets or $3,000 for households with elderly and disabled people.

The asset test would take into account a household’s bank account, lottery and gambling income, cash, real estate, and personal property.

Exceptions would be made for retirement accounts, one vehicle and the household’s primary residence and surrounding lot, according to the legislation.

The Senate passed the bill Tuesday afternoon with 21 voting in favor, 12 opposed and one senator absent.

Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, the lead sponsor of the bill, told the Gazette-Mail earlier this month that he doesn’t want to eliminate food assistance for people who actually need it. The goal of the bill is to “ferret” out those who don’t need it, he said.

In urging the bill’s passage Tuesday, Gaunch told the Senate he wants to preserve valuable federal dollars for those in West Virginia who need it the most.

Opponents of the bill say it would punish poor people for attempting to save money and would further perpetuate the cycle of poverty in West Virginia.

In the Mountain State, around 350,000 residents or one in five people are on SNAP at any given time, said Seth DiStefano, campaign manager for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a progressive think tank. The bill would require an asset test not only for the SNAP recipient, but for every member of the person’s household, DiStefano said. The bill would especially hurt seniors, who have worked their whole lives and saved money, but in retirement are relying on Social Security and food stamps, he said. The bill would require them to spend down their savings or be in eligible for food assistance.

“We will not break the cycle of poverty by passing laws that discourage people from saving money,” he said.

DiStefano said the only food stamp fraud he’s aware of has been on the side of retailers, not beneficiaries. The bill does nothing to cut back on retail food stamp fraud, he said. He cited a recent case in Huntington, where the owners of a gas station are accused of exchanging cash for a portion of the value of at least $5,000 in SNAP benefit cards, the Herald-Dispatch reported.

“There’s nothing in the bill that deals with the provider side,” DiStefano said. “Nothing at all. It all comes down on the people.”

Another section of the bill allows the Department of Health and Human Resources to contract with a third-party vendor to develop a system to verify income, assets and eligibility of those who apply for public assistance, including SNAP, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The bill says the vendor should save the state more money than it costs it or the contract for the system should not be renewed, essentially ensuring that the vendor would need to eliminate enough people from the public assistance to cover the cost of its contract, he said.

DiStefano said besides the budget bill, SB60 would affect the most amount of people.

“People need to be paying attention,” he said.

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