Bill that would alter public assistance benefits heads to House floor

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Almost everyone who spoke at a public hearing about a bill about eligibility and fraud requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other public benefits came out against the proposed changes.

Hours later, the House Judiciary Committee passed the bill. It now goes to the House floor.

Most of those who spoke at the morning hearing said the bill would provide greater barriers to those who barely get by.

“If you want people to work, the answer is increased food security,” said¬†Chantal Fields of West Virginians for Affordable Healthcare. “Being healthy and not hungry helps people get work and stay productive.”

The bill would define work requirements and require an identity card as a condition to receive public assistance, among other changes. It would also track out-of-state spending on SNAP benefits, commonly called food stamps.

One of the limitations would mean that able-bodied adults without dependents would be able to receive SNAP benefits for only three months of every three years.

The Department of Health and Human Resources is supposed to report back to the Legislature by 2020 the employment impact of the bill if it should go into effect.

The House Judiciary Committee began discussing the bill right after this morning’s public hearing and, with several breaks along with long discussion, finally voted it out about 7:30 p.m. .

The committee was considering a bill that changed some aspects of what was originally introduced, mixing in some changes that had been proposed by the Department of Health and Human Resources.

Several representatives of groups that work with the poor spoke against the bill this morning.

“Social service programs should be responsive to the needs of those being served,” said Julie Archer, speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters. “It’s hard enough being poor.”

Jean Simpson, who retired from work with Manna Meal in Charleston, told lawmakers, “You all have no clue what poverty is.”

Many of those who spoke against the bill said it would produce greater barriers to stability for impoverished people, even those who are trying to regain a foothold in the workforce.

“I feel obligated to give voice to the concerns of our clients. There are certainly unintended consequences,” said Chris Garner of Catholic Charities West Virginia.

“I feel that this bill, as written, relies too heavily upon false assumptions about an entire class of people.”

Discussing the results of a pilot program in several West Virginia counties, Cynthia Kirkhart, executive Director of Facing Hunger Food Bank in the Huntington area, said there has been a sharp increase in demand for food and greater demand for a backpack program that provides youth with food.

“With limited resources at the food bank, we are not meeting the need of food required for those who seek it,” Kirkhart said. “These benefits are not extravagant at all.”

Juliet Terry, representing the Opportunity Solutions Project, spoke in favor of the bill.

“It should be an easy yes,” Terry said. “It encourages self-sufficiency. It also helps government fight against waste, fraud and abuse.”

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