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Legislation would restrict SNAP benefits

By Lori Kersey

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bill introduced in the state Legislature this session would require a means test for food stamp recipients. Senate Bill 60 and its House companion House Bill 2741 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.

Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, the lead sponsor of the bill’s Senate version, said he’s already taken some “heat” for introducing the legislation. Gaunch said he doesn’t want to eliminate food assistance for people who actually need it.

“My goal is to ferret out those who shouldn’t be getting them or are using in nefarious ways,” Gaunch said.

Gaunch said he knows food stamp cards are sold illegally for “50 cents on the dollar,” though he doesn’t know how often it happens. It doesn’t matter that food stamps are funded with federal dollars, not state, he said.

“They’re all taxpayer dollars,” Gaunch said. “We should do all we can to make sure the benefits are used the way they intended to and help the people who deserve them.”

The Department of Health and Human Resources reported that in January 2016, 355,440 West Virginia residents were on food stamps.

During fiscal year 2016, the DHHR’s Office of Inspector General received 5,398 referrals of suspected fraud of the SNAP program, a spokeswoman said. The OIG processed $2,189,171 in fraud and improper SNAP payments last year, she said.

Sens. Charles Trump, R-Morgan; Greg Boso, R-Nicholas; Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson; and Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, also are sponsoring the bill.

Sponsors of House Bill 2741 include Delegates Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell; Eric Householder, R-Berkeley; Saira Blair, R-Berkeley; Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia; Ray Hollen, R-Wirt; Erikka Storch, R-Ohio; Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette; Amy Summers, R-Taylor; Nancy Foster, R-Putnam; Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell; and Carol Miller, R-Cabell.

Opponents say the legislation could perpetuate the cycle of poverty by requiring people spend their savings to keep their food assistance. It would punish poor people for getting a vehicle to travel to and from work, said Seth DiStefano, campaign manager for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a progressive think tank.

“That seems counterproductive,” DiStefano said. “If you want to fight poverty, the last thing we want to do is punish people for getting transportation.”

DiStefano said the bill could cause further poverty by preventing people who are poor from saving their money.

“[It would threaten] a lot of peoples’ food assistance but also has the ability to keep people who are poor, very poor and keep them in the cycle of poverty,” DiStefano said.

The bill, among other things, would also allow the DHHR to contract with a third-party vendor to set up a system to verify the qualifications of recipients of public assistance, including SNAP, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). It would set up a pay bonus for the vendor for “achieving above a predetermined rate of success of identifying waste, fraud and abuse.”

DiStefano said the third-party vendor portion of the bill deserves scrutiny.

“I can really see a lot of problems,” he said. “When a subcontractor’s paycheck depends on those they remove, what do you think happens? A lot of people who are perfectly eligible end up getting removed. In a state as poor as West Virginia, this is not the direction we need to be moving in. Not at all.”

The legislation also would require food stamp recipients in all 55 counties to work or participate in a work program an average of 20 hours per week to keep their benefits.

Similarly, House Bill 2132 would require recipients to work or participate in educational or volunteer program for 20 hours a week. The bill is sponsored by Delegates Michael Folk, R-Berkeley; Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock; and Sobonya.

For about a year, the state has had a pilot program that requires food stamp recipients in the counties with the lowest unemployment rates to work or volunteer or lose their benefits. The requirements apply to “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWD) in Berkeley, Cabell, Harrison, Jefferson, Kanawha, Marion, Monongalia, Morgan and Putnam counties.

DHHR report indicates the work requirements did not significantly improve employment figures for food stamp recipients in those nine counties.

“While we have reduced the SNAP caseload by approximately 5,417 across the nine counties since the ABAWD restrictions were put in place, we do not see a clear increase in the number of [able-bodied adults without dependents] maintaining benefits due to meeting the work requirements during that same time frame,” the report says. “The percentage of working ABAWDs proportional to the total SNAP population has held steady since the work requirements were put into place.”

During calendar year 2016, the DHHR made 13,984 referrals to the SNAP employment and training program, the report says. Of those, 259 people found employment.

The benefits amount to about $203 per month per recipient, according to the report. By the DHHR’s estimate of 7,310 people statewide who would lose benefits if they didn’t work, the impact would be $17,824,704 fewer federal SNAP dollars in the state economy, the report says.

Opponents of the work requirements also say if the requirements didn’t improve employment rates among recipients in counties with low unemployment rates, it will not lead to more employment in counties that have lower employment rates.

“It was very clear to me that we are not moving the needle on employment,” DiStefano said. “Taking their food away is not about finding a job, so what are we doing here?”

Kay Albright, outreach coordinator for Manna Meal, a Charleston soup kitchen, said cutting people off from their food stamps could lead to the agency having to feed more people. She spoke out against HB 2132 in a health committee meeting last week.

Even a 10 percent uptick would require the agency to raise substantially more money to feed them, Albright said.

Albright said when the work and volunteer requirements went into effect for Kanawha and other counties last year, a few people asked to volunteer at Manna Meal to meet the requirements.

Albright said Manna Meal can’t accommodate volunteers for 20 hours a week. She dismissed a suggestion from a lawmaker last week who said people on food stamps have plenty of opportunities to volunteer through agencies like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Americorps and in flood recovery efforts.

Albright said the suggestion doesn’t take into account programs like Americorps are meant for people who are right out of college or that some of the people who depend on food stamps face challenges like chronic homelessness, addictions and mental illnesses.

The House health committee referred HB 2132 on Tuesday to the Judiciary committee, then to the House floor. SB 60 is pending in the Senate Finance Committee, and HB 2741 is pending in the House Government Organization Committee.

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