On August 23, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law a major overhaul of the nation’s safety net programs. “’Today we are taking a historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life,” the President said. “Today we are ending welfare as we know it.”

Among other things, the bill created work requirements for able-bodied adults to be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service website, “While SNAP is intended to ensure that no one in our land of plenty should fear going hungry, it also reflects the importance of work and responsibility.  SNAP rules require all recipients meet work requirements unless they are exempt because of age or disability or another specific reason.”

However, President Obama undermined the work requirement by allowing states to receive “waivers,” so in West Virginia and many other states the work requirement faded.

Currently, the state Department of Health and Human Resources has a waiver from the federal government for all but nine of West Virginia’s 55 counties.*

Now, that may be changing.

The West Virginia House of Delegates, by a 78-19 bi-partisan vote Tuesday, advanced HB 4001. The legislation phases out the waiver and says that able-bodied adults between the ages of 18-50 who do not have children or dependents, who are not pregnant, who don’t have a disability, must work, volunteer or participate in job training for 20 hours a week to qualify for food stamps.

To listen to the debate on the bill yesterday you would have thought that the House was trying to approve the food distribution program for the Soviet Union. There was plenty of hyperbole about taking food from the mouths of people and starving children.

The proponents patiently pointed out again and again that adults with children are exempt, that poor people who are already working are exempt, that the old and the sick are exempt, that simply volunteering could count toward the 20 hour work requirement.

With all those exemptions, one wonders how many able-bodied adults are left!

The bill also requires the state Department of Health and Human Resources to develop a computer tracking database to “assist in the detection of fraud and misrepresentation by persons applying for benefits.”

That’s an appropriate step to try to insure that the people getting the benefits are the ones who deserve them.

Back to Bill Clinton. He frequently talked about the expectations created when we work hard and play by the rules.

“A long time ago I concluded that the current welfare system undermines basic values of work, responsibility and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help,” Clinton said at the signing of the welfare reform bill.

Work, volunteering and training are not punitive; they are integral to well-being for individuals, families and communities. Naturally, there are people who are not able to work for a variety of reasons, and the bill excludes them from the work provision.

But what the bill does say clearly is that there’s no reason why able-bodied adults should not have to help themselves if they want a hand up.

*(The nine counties are Berkeley, Cabell, Harrison, Jefferson, Kanawha, Marion, Monongalia, Morgan and Putnam.)

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