With work requirements going into effect, thousands in West Virginia face a ‘hunger cliff’

Food distribution centers and pantries respond to a delayed law now taking effect

By: - July 11, 2023 3:00 am

Lawmakers passed legislation in 2018 to expand SNAP work requirements to all 55 counties. Those are set to take effect soon after being delayed by the pandemic. (Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images)

In less than 80 days, thousands of West Virginians who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for food could lose their benefits as pre-pandemic eligibility requirements take hold statewide for the first time.

The policy that went into effect on July 1 requires “able-bodied adults without dependents” between the ages of 18 and 49 to either enroll in a job training program, work or volunteer for at least 20 hours a week by Oct. 1. 

While there are exemptions for certain circumstances — including those in addiction recovery programs, people who are pregnant and students, among others — people who don’t meet the requirements will only be eligible to receive SNAP benefits for three months within a three-year period.

“We are going to see hunger spike,” said Rhonda Rogombé, an analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “No matter how you slice it, we’re going to have a lot of people hungry this fall who don’t have to be.”

Previous attempts to tie work requirements to food programs in West Virginia yielded lackluster results, according to a report from the Department of Health and Human Resources. The nine counties that had them in place as part of a pilot program in 2016 saw no significant decreases in unemployment rates and actually fell behind employment growth when compared with the rest of the state.

Despite the lack of supporting data in the state and a body of research nationwide showing that these requirements do nothing for long-term employment or earnings, West Virginia lawmakers passed legislation in 2018 to expand work requirements to all 55 counties. That measure, House Bill 4001, also precludes the state Department of Health and Human Resources from applying for waivers that could help people struggling in counties where work isn’t readily available.

“We’re basically hanging people in those places out to dry,” Rogombé said.

This is complicated by nuances in who is considered able-bodied without dependents, Rogombé said. Many people in the state are responsible for feeding children who are not legally classified as their dependents, but who are nonetheless in their care. Other people may not be mentally or physically able to work certain jobs, but lack the proper documentation from a doctor that is needed to apply for an exemption to receive SNAP benefits.

The 2018 law should have gone into effect in 2022, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Now the work requirements will take hold as the amount of money all people on SNAP receive decreased in response to the end of that emergency status this spring.

Nearly 12% of people in the state are considered “food insecure,” and 1 in 7 children here face hunger daily, according to Feeding America. The state needs an estimated $116 million to close the hunger gap, and the end of pandemic-era provisions that kept people fed is taking money out of pockets — roughly $36 million in federal food assistance a month from 170,000 households in West Virginia, according to the Center on Budget and Policy.

Amy Wolfe, executive director of Manna Meal, a nonprofit feeding center and food pantry in Charleston, said people in need are already feeling the loss. The end of COVID-19 assistance programs and the work requirements going into effect, she said, are only going to drive up need in a time where food is more expensive for feeding centers and pantries to provide.

“There was a lot of pandemic money flowing around for a while — rental assistance, stimulus money, SNAP was increased greatly — that helped people get through and be comfortable to some degree,” Wolfe said. “Now, things are back to pre-pandemic levels, and it doesn’t seem anyone is taking into account that food costs are more than they’ve ever been.”

Food costs today are about 11% higher than they were at the same time last year, Wolfe said. And as the state clears out its Medicaid rolls and people lose SNAP benefits, more and more are coming in for aid as they’re forced to pay out of pocket for other necessary services.

“We’ve seen an uptick unlike anything I was prepared for in the last few months,” Wolfe said. “It’s scary — really scary, like this is what keeps me up at night — knowing that is only going to get worse and worse throughout the next few months.”

At the Boone County Family Service Center, Director Dakota Smith said the amount of people they’re feeding continues to increase, in part because of expanded service offerings but also due to growing need. Now in its second year of operation, the Family Service Center is in a position to serve the entire county instead of just the small communities near its pantry.

“Yes, food is getting more expensive but we’re also buying a lot more food,” Smith said. “We want to be in that position where more people are able to come to us instead of not eating, but it’s not always easy.”

As the SNAP work requirements go into effect, Smith said he’s sure there will be an impact among those without food security in the county. There isn’t public transportation available for some people who may be eligible to work, but who can’t get to a job. If they don’t qualify for SNAP anymore, he’s not sure where they will go.

“If people don’t have access to transportation to earn the money they need to afford food to eat, how are you going to cut them off from receiving food?” Smith said. “We need to give people the means to get up and get out of poverty. That includes investing not just in transportation but in economic development, and that’s not really happening here.”

A beige stone church with a rainbow Pride flag sits on the corner of a street.
Manna Meal operates a soup kitchen inside St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, West Virginia. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

On top of needing a job or enrolling in a job training program, people who need SNAP must file various forms and paperwork to receive their benefits. Wolfe, with Manna Meal, said she knows this isn’t easy or always available to folks who need food.

The broadband infrastructure in West Virginia is spotty, and even with the ability to connect online, the process can be confusing and overwhelming, Rogombé said.

“There’s a lot more red tape now for people to have access to things that they should have the right to access,” Rogombé said. “Besides just losing a lot of those emergency allotments that helped tide people over the last three years, now the state is saying you will get less money and you need to let us know about all your work-related activities to get any at all. That’s problematic.”

And while for many the pandemic and policies birthed out of it may be at an end, hunger and job insecurity persist. The number of meals served by Manna Meal hasn’t gone down since the onset of the pandemic, even as other industries and employment numbers have started to even out. The organization distributes about 15,000 hot meals a month in a city of about 48,000 people. That number doesn’t account for the food pantry, Wolfe said.

“We’re still seeing a lot of new faces each day we open our doors, and I’m thankful that people know we’re here and where to find us, but I don’t see an end in sight right now,” Wolfe said. “The next two to three months are going to be a real test for food providers, and we have to be up for it, because if we’re not, people are going to fall off the hunger cliff.”

Editor’s note: This story was corrected from an earlier version that said  “able-bodied adults without disabilities.” It is able-bodied adults without dependents.


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Caity Coyne
Caity Coyne

Caity Coyne covers state policy and how it intersects with individuals and communities for West Virginia Watch. She's been reporting in West Virginia for 10 years, most recently covering public health and the Southern Coalfields for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.