February 13, 2016

Food, work, money and survival

This op-ed of mine ran in the Charleston WV Gazette-Mail Friday. It's about proposed changes to the SNAP or food stamp program:

There’s concern across the political spectrum about how to get more people into the workforce. For good reason. Our participation rate of around 53 percent is lowest in the country and below the U.S. average of around 63 percent. That brings our numbers down when it comes to income and productivity.

There are several proposals to address this. Some have evidence to back them up. Others are likely to be counterproductive.

One that could do more harm than good unless we get it right has to do with the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or food stamp program.

Proposals are circulating in the Legislature and administration to impose 20-hour weekly work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents aged 18 to 50. Those who don’t would only be eligible for benefits in three months of a three-year period.

The administration has already implemented a pilot in nine counties based on this concept, although it allows for exemptions for recipients who have mental or physical disabilities, etc.

Work requirements sound good. We’d all be better off if more were working, earning money and paying taxes. But a ham-fisted approach could not only hurt low-wage workers but local businesses and charities as well. And it could even kill more jobs.

According to Metro News, there are nearly 90,000 such adults in this group statewide. Many are already working but can’t get 20 hours or more per week. They’re already subject to basic work requirements which include being registered for work, participating in SNAP education and training as required, accepting suitable employment if offered, and not voluntarily reducing work hours below 30 per week (although the degree to which these have been implemented here isn’t clear).

Still others in this group are seeking work but haven’t found it. Jobs are scarce, particularly in areas hard hit by the decline of coal. We have the highest unemployment rate in the country and 39,000 fewer jobs than before the recession.

A 20-hour weekly average work requirement would be great if the Department of Health and Human Resources could guarantee job or volunteer placement, workfare or training and if it gave adequate supportive services when needed such as transportation assistance. And if it had the ability to do case management and exempt people not suited for employment.

Unfortunately, as of now it can’t and doesn’t. Before we move in that direction, we need to make sure the infrastructure is in place.

Even in these polarized times, conservatives and progressives have found common ground on this. A recent report jointly produced by the Brookings Institution and the conservative American Enterprise Institute argued that “if we require more work as a condition of receiving public benefits, we should support policies expanding work availability to those who need it, especially during economic downturns or in depressed regions of the country.”

“Depressed regions of the country” … that would be us.

If we don’t do this right, tens of thousands of people — despite their best efforts —are likely to be cut off. In Maine, for example, 80 percent lost benefits.

These are people with very low incomes. Over 80 percent are below half of the poverty line. They don’t qualify for TANF or disability benefits. SNAP benefits for such people averaged $143 per month in 2015.

Try living on that.

If cutoffs come, businesses would lose. SNAP benefits don’t gather dust. They’re spent right away in convenience stores, groceries, big-box retailers and farmers markets. This supports jobs for local workers. According to the USDA, every $5 in SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity. Further, this boost to West Virginia’s economy doesn’t come out of the state budget; SNAP is a federal program that also supports farms and agri-businesses.

State food pantries, soup kitchens and local charities often operated by our faith communities are already stretched to the limit and won’t be able to take up the slack.

Worse, all this could actually result in fewer jobs due to the millions we’re taking out of the economy.

Let’s do the math: if only half as large a percentage lose benefits as in rural Maine, we’re talking about taking around $62 million per year away from local businesses and economies every year (36,000 people x $143 per month x 12 months). That’s enough to pay for nearly 3,400 full-time, 40-hour per week retail jobs at the state minimum wage of $8.75.

Bottom line: if we get this wrong, it would hurt local businesses, charities and low wage workers trying their best to get by. Nobody wins. We need to take the time to get it right and find solutions that work for everyone.

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