By JAKE ZUCKERMAN
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bill designed to impose an asset test on applicants for government assistance programs received a near-unanimous shellacking during a public hearing Monday.
Senate Bill 60, which the Senate passed last week, yielded comments from 19 audience members in the chambers of the House of Delegates.
Of the lot, only one spoke in favor of the bill. The rest said if the bill passes, it would harm poor families, and discourage saving money — the vehicle out of poverty.
The legislation would prevent disbursement of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to households with assets worth $2,000 and up, or $3,000 for households with elderly or disabled residents. The asset test, conducted by a third-party contractor, would consider household members’ bank accounts, lottery and gambling income, cash, real estate and personal property.
It would not count retirement savings, one vehicle or applicants’ primary residences and their surrounding lots in the test.
Eli Baumwell, policy director for the West Virginia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill places unwarranted suspicion on poor people.
“It’s premised on assumption of guilt, that the economically disadvantaged should be treated with suspicion, that compassion is conditional,” he said at the hearing.
Along with principle issues, Baumwell said the bill has several logistical problems. For one, he said SNAP recipients could lose their benefits due to family members or friends who live in the house in the short-run, at the time of the test.
Though families could challenge the assets test verdict, Baumwell said many poor families lack the funds to appoint counsel or adequate knowledge of the U.S. court system to appeal a ruling.
The lone advocate for the bill, Juliet Terry, spoke on behalf of the Foundation for Government Authority, a Florida-based think-tank that advocates for asset tests. She said the bill will help the Department of Health and Human Resources free up resources to help those who need it, and foster independence for those who don’t.
“This bill provides the building blocks for helping people return to productivity and elevate themselves out of poverty,” she said.
Aside from Terry, the hearing took a heavy tilt against the bill from advocates of agriculture, policy and faith-based groups.
Speaking for the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, Spencer Moss said she opposes the bill because not only will it solidify poor people’s socioeconomic status, it will prevent money from making it through the multiplier effect as it goes from buyer to seller to producer and all other intermediaries.
Jean Simpson, executive director of Manna Meal, a soup kitchen in Charleston, said she opposes the bill because of West Virginia’s current financial state. She said given how poor West Virginia is, and the low income of most people who come into the soup kitchen for a meal (up to 22,000 annually), it doesn’t make sense for the state to make it harder to receive a moderate crutch from the state.
“Every single thing that people that live in poverty do, every single day, is hard,” she said. “Taking their food away from them is shameful, absolutely shameful. We’re going to destroy our water, take our food away from them, we have no jobs, how much further can we go before we destroy the citizens in your counties?”
Additionally, Jeff Allen, a United Methodist Church pastor and representative of the West Virginia Council of Churches, opposed the bill for several reasons. For one, he said building up assets (which one cannot do while receiving SNAP benefits) gets people out of poverty.
He said several other items, such as only allowing one car to remain exempt, will only amount to headaches, not savings.
“Third party verification seems rife with potential difficulty and likely lawsuits,” he said.
Also opposing the bill were representatives from the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, the West Virginia Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition and the American Friends Service Committee.
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