While the Trump administration continues to hack away at the safety net, one Trump state provides a preview of what the effects will be. Four years ago, West Virginia started imposing work requirements on food assistance in areas that it said were no longer experiencing economic distress. The result: a lot more hunger, no more jobs.
Work requirements have been imposed on food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, since 1996. The law added a time limit for able-bodied people to remain on the program unless the recipient was working or in job training for a minimum of 20 hours a week. But states have been free to waive those restrictions during economic downturns and for their communities that have become economically distressed. West Virginia decided to reimpose those restrictions, and now the Trump administration is effectively eliminating these waivers. It could kick some 700,000 out of the program. The administration says it will force lazy good-for-nothings who could work but refuse to get jobs.
That’s exactly the rationale West Virginia Republicans had and that’s exactly how it hasn’t worked in the nine counties where the restrictions have been enacted, The New York Times reports. “It was just like, ‘Boom, what’s going on here?’” said Mitch Webb, director of the Huntington City Mission. From providing an average of around 8,700 meals a month, they were soon dishing out 12,300 meals every month. “It never renormalized,” Webb told the Times.
Diana Van Horn, who runs the Trinity Episcopal Church food pantry confirms how the need skyrocketed. “A few years ago, at the first of the month we would be slow and toward the end of the months we would be busy,” she said. “Now we are busy all the time.” It’s the story of the working poor, who live in rural and underserved and economically marginal areas, who don’t have access to stable jobs that promise a minimum of 20 hours a week and who don’t have reliable transportation to get to those jobs if they can find them.
The jobs won’t come to these areas and these people aren’t able to relocate to find them. So they go hungry and rely more on charity. The fact that they have even less money to spend means lessened demand for other goods and services in their communities and a continuing downward cycle of distress. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy analyzed it all, and can prove it didn’t work to create jobs, reporting, “While around 5,410 people lost food stamps in the nine counties, the growth in the labor force in these counties over the ensuing three years significantly lagged the rest of the state. Average monthly employment growth in the counties actually slowed, while it nearly doubled in the rest of West Virginia.”
That’s not a problem for Republican Delegate Tom Fast who sponsored legislation to impose the work restrictions statewide. He says it’s a policy success because “The information I have is that there’s been significant savings overall.” Of course, his narrow vision of “savings” doesn’t encompass the extra strain put on charities. “If a person just chooses not to work, which those are the people that were targeted, they’re not going to get a free ride,” he told the Chicago Tribune. No excuses for anyone: “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” Spoken like someone who’s never had to worry about where their next meal is coming from.
Here’s what Jerome Comer, who works in a food bank warehouse and who actually has had food insecurity, had to say about it. “You say, ‘Well, they’re able-bodied Americans.’ Yeah, but they live 40 miles out in the holler. They can’t walk to McDonalds,” he told the Times.