April 24, 2018

Hungry days ahead

Gov. Justice declared in his State of the State back in January, "We don't need to quit until every single person is not standing on the side of the bridge saying, 'Mister, you have no idea how bad I'm hurting.'"

Actions speak louder than words. A case in point is that despite our governor's noble pronouncement, he recently signed House Bill 4001, a law that once enacted will do more to increase hunger than increase full-time employment.

HB 4001 mandates that the state no longer apply for a waiver from the federal government to exempt able-bodied adults without dependents from a 20-hour-a-week work requirement to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as SNAP or food stamps, but more importantly should be understood as food).

The law will add at least eight additional counties to the nine-county pilot that began in early 2016 when our Department of Health and Human Resources removed roughly 5,417 so-called "able-bodied adults without dependents" from the SNAP rolls.

Work requirements sound good, and they especially sound good when applied to "able-bodied adults without dependents," but be careful not to generalize who these thousands of individuals might be.

Perhaps it is a person on the difficult journey toward recovery from opioid addiction, and the food security that SNAP provides is the linchpin.

Perhaps it is one of the thousands of grandparents raising grandkids due to the ongoing opioid crisis. Make no mistake then, more children will go hungry, too.

Is taking food away from a person the answer to helping them find a job that offers enough hours to satisfy the work requirement, and (gasp) a job that offers a decent wage and health benefits?

Because in reality a lot of these individuals are working but they are in extremely low-paying, part-time jobs that are volatile and do not always provide enough hours to meet the 20-hour-a-week minimum.

While people often say that any good policy should be evidence-based, too often we instead hear anecdotes and sweeping charges of "laziness" used to justify policy.

Sociologist Herbert Gans said of this trend in his essay "The War Against the Poor" that "judgments are based on imagined knowledge, which may come from stories and preconceived ideas."

When looking at the evidence of the nine-county pilot where stricter work requirements were enacted and 5,417 individuals lost their food stamps, "imagined knowledge" is about all we have.

Did we succeed in the professed goal of getting people into more full-time employment, paying taxes and therefore no longer needing $118 a month to help pay for the bare necessity of food?

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources' own report, the answer is no. Of the 13,984 referrals to the SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) program, 259 gained employment - a less than 2 per cent success rate.

By contrast to HB 4001, the bill number alone indicating it was their top priority, the same legislative body could not find the political will to pass a bill that would have had a real impact on workforce participation.

HB 2727 sought to address the fact that people leave prison every day without any form of state-issued identification card, which means they face difficulty obtaining a job, much less keeping one if they don't have a driver's license. This bill, which would have helped thousands of West Virginians become gainfully employed taxpayers, died in House Finance.

Illustrating how HB 2727 would have boosted employment, a 2015 study conducted in Franklin County, Ohio, of "able-bodied adults without dependents" found that a whopping 60 percent of the 5,000 individuals surveyed said that not having a driver's license was a significant barrier to employment. Other major barriers cited were felony convictions, lack of transportation and being non-custodial parents.

HB 4001 becoming law will not create a single good-paying job. But it will for certain take food away from people, and federal dollars away from local economies.

The people who support legislation like this believe that food is a privilege, not a basic human right. It is probably safe to say then that our billionaire governor, and both the Republicans and Democrats who voted for this bill, are not worried about how they will pay for their next meal.

I am left to conclude that the governor's avowal in his State of the State was not true aspiration, but that really he has no idea how bad people are hurting.

(This op-ed by Lida Shepherd of the American Friends Service Committee appeared in the Huntington WV Herald-Dispatch this week.)