By Lexi Browning
For the West Virginia Press Associaiton
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The potential benefits and problems created by adding restricts and work requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program lead discussions at Health Committee meetings in both the West Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate Tuesday.
s Both Senate and House Health Committees discussed similar bills Tuesday concerning Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit restrictions and the implementation of work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents.
Senate Bill 60, sponsored by Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, and House Bill 2132, sponsored by Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, both aim to prevent systemic fraud in government assistance programs and encourage SNAP recipients that are not disabled to volunteer or work 20 hours per week in exchange for government assistance.
If passed, S.B. 60, which focuses on fraud prevention in public assistance and requires the Department of Health and Human Resources to establish work program guidelines, could require applicants to work 20 hours per week or 80 hours per month to maintain eligibility.
H.B. 2132 would limit adults from receiving SNAP benefits for more than three months per 36-month period if they are not employed within a weekly work program by the three-month mark.
In both instances, “able-bodied” is defined as an adult between the ages of 18 and 49-50 without dependents.
In introducing his motive behind the bill, Sen. Gaunch said he knew the bill would be controversial – so controversial that he almost removed it from the agenda the night before its debut. Not sponsoring the bill, he said, would have been much easier.
“I understand there is tremendous angst and fear with this bill. I get it,” Sen. Gaunch said. “I don’t take those fears lightly. My sincere motive is this: The funds that are available for benefits are limited and becoming more so. My goal is to make sure we’re properly administering those dollars that are running through the DHHR so they are available to those who need them the most.”
Sen. Gaunch said he had no intention to arbitrarily kick anyone off of the SNAP programs. The effort, he said, would merely be an extension of the state’s nine-county pilot program. The program, established in 2016, requires able-bodied adults to work or attend job-training classes weekly to maintain SNAP beneficiary status.
Bradley Wilson, Ph.D., assistant professor of geography and adviser to the Facing Hunger Foodbank and Mountaineer Foodbank, said the bill could potentially target the SNAP-dependent families who reside in “food deserts.”
“In West Virginia, 29 percent of families live in food deserts,” Wilson said. “In rural areas in particular, communities face considerable barriers in getting access to food. The SNAP program is a fundamental lifeline for those families.”
“Of the $93 million the state receives annually from the federal government for SNAP, that has an impact of $800 million in the state of West Virginia annually,” Wilson said. “We’re looking at an issue of fraud that’s potentially $4 million. When I looked at the cost of the bill to implement it to save $4 million for the federal government, not the state government, I had major concerns.”
S.B. 60 was passed onto the floor and will be examined by the Finance Committee.
Members of the House Health Committee were reluctant to pass H.B. 2132 before analyzing DHHR statistics that outlined the successes and shortfalls of the existing pilot program.
Monica Hamilton of the DHHR said the agency works diligently to match applicants with jobs or volunteer positions that can provide them with at least 20 hours of work each week.
“We contract with workforce and [recipients] determine if they want to volunteer or get a job,” Hamilton said. “We also have two job developers employed at the DHHR who tell them where the jobs are and where job fairs are taking place. We also have trainings they can attend with third party partners with trainings they can choose.”
Delegate Barbara Fleishchauer, D-Monongalia, also raised concerns about the legislation’s impact on homeless individuals in state, specifically those who struggle with mental illnesses.
“In Monongalia, we have a large homeless population and 12-13 food pantries. In my experience representing some of these people, a lot of them are mentally ill. They may not have their act together to do a whole lot.”
H.B. 2132 was held for further discussion in the committee’s next meeting.