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What Happened When a State Made Food Stamps Harder to Get

In West Virginia, tougher work requirements for receiving food stamps complicated life for poor people, but did not result in increased employment.

The most visible impact in the changes in work requirements for the food stamp program in nine West Virginia counties was at the homeless missions and food pantries, which saw a substantial spike in demand that has never receded.Credit...Andrew Spear for The New York Times

MILTON, W.Va. — In the early mornings, Chastity and Paul Peyton walk from their small and barely heated apartment to Taco Bell to clean fryers and take orders for as many work hours as they can get. It rarely adds up to a full-time week’s worth, often not even close. With this income and whatever cash Mr. Peyton can scrape up doing odd jobs — which are hard to come by in a small town in winter, for someone without a car — the couple pays rent, utilities and his child support payments.

Then there is the matter of food.

“We can barely eat,” Ms. Peyton said. She was told she would be getting food stamps again soon — a little over two dollars’ worth a day — but the couple was without them for months. Sometimes they made too much money to qualify; sometimes it was a matter of working too little. There is nothing reliable but the local food pantry.

Four years ago, thousands of poor people here in Cabell County and eight other counties in West Virginia that were affected by a state policy change found themselves having to prove that they were working or training for at least 20 hours a week in order to keep receiving food stamps consistently. In April, under a rule change by the Trump administration, people all over the country who are “able-bodied adults without dependents” will have to do the same.

The policy seems straightforward, but there is nothing straightforward about the reality of the working poor, a daily life of unreliable transportation, erratic work hours and capricious living arrangements.

Still, what has happened in the nine counties in West Virginia in the last four years does offer at least an indication of how it will play out on a larger scale.

Sherry Perry, right, helps a client at the Eastern Cabell County Humanities Organization food pantry in Milton, W.Va.

The most visible impact has been at homeless missions and food pantries, which saw a big spike in demand that has never receded. But the policy change was barely noticeable in the work force, where evidence of some large influx of new workers is hard to discern. This reflects similar findings elsewhere, as states have steadily been reinstating work requirements in the years since the recession, when nearly the whole country waived them.

Since 1996, federal law has set a time limit on how long able-bodied adults could receive food stamps: no more than three months in a three-year period, if the recipient was not working or in training for at least 20 hours a week. But states have been able to waive those rules in lean times and in hurting areas; waivers are still in place in roughly one-third of the country.

Under the new rule from the Trump administration, most of these waivers will effectively be eliminated. By the administration’s own estimate, around 700,000 people will lose food stamps. Officials say that there are plenty of jobs waiting for them in the humming economy.

This was the thinking as West Virginia began lifting waivers four years ago, starting in the counties where unemployment rates were lowest.

The reimposition of work requirements for food stamps in Cabell County, W.Va., and eight other counties appeared to have no impact on the number of people there who were working, only on the number receiving aid.

One of the first signs of the change came in the dining hall of the Huntington City Mission, about half an hour’s drive from little Milton. Suddenly, the hall was packed.

“It was just like, ‘Boom, what’s going on here?’” said Mitch Webb, the director of the 81-year-old mission. In early 2016, the mission served an average of around 8,700 meals a month. After the new food stamp policy went into full effect, that jumped to over 12,300 meals a month. “It never renormalized,” Mr. Webb said.

That was true all around Huntington.

“A few years ago, at the first of the month we would be slow and toward the end of the months we would be busy,” said Diana Van Horn, who runs the food pantry at Trinity Episcopal Church. “Now we are busy all the time.”

Cynthia Kirkhart, who runs Facing Hunger, the main food bank in the region, said people started just showing up at the warehouse, asking if they were handing out food. There was no telling where else they were now turning. “People who are surviving do not approach the world the same way as people who are thriving,” she said.

That the number of people receiving food stamps would drop significantly was, of course, by design. The question was what would become of them.

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a research group that focuses heavily on social safety-net issues, there was no evidence of a big change in the job market. While around 5,410 people lost food stamps in the nine counties, the growth in the labor force in these counties over the ensuing three years significantly lagged the rest of the state. Average monthly employment growth in the counties actually slowed, while it nearly doubled in the rest of West Virginia.

“We can prove it from the data that this does not work,” said Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director at the center.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources initially acknowledged as much. “Our best data,” it reported in 2017, “does not indicate that the program has had a significant impact on employment figures.”

Jerome Comer, 47, who left rehab last year, is now working in the warehouse of Facing Hunger, a food bank in Huntington, W.Va. 

Jerome Comer, 47, who left rehab last year, is now working in the warehouse of Facing Hunger, a food bank in Huntington, W.Va. 

In an email message last week, a spokeswoman for the department said that the available data “does not paint a clear picture of the impact” of the changes on employment in the nine counties.

Delegate Tom Fast, a Republican lawmaker who sponsored a bill in 2018 that restored work requirements for food stamps statewide, said he considered the policy a success. “The information I have is that there’s been significant savings over all,” he said, coupling that with a low unemployment rate as evidence that the policy was working.

“If a person just chooses not to work, which those are the people that were targeted, they’re not going to get a free ride,” he said. Of people who are facing concrete obstacles to steady work, like a lack of transportation, he added: “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”

This is a popular sentiment, even among those who have had to rely on food stamps. The Peytons expressed little sympathy for people “just getting things handed to them.” At dinnertime at the city mission, men complained about people who were too lazy to work, who were sponging off the system.

“Not giving people food stamps because they don’t work is probably the best course of action,” said Zach Tate, who had been at the mission before, but now, with a place to stay, was just back for a meal. “It’s like training a puppy.”

He returned to his turkey Alfredo for a few moments and then clarified.

“But taking it away indefinitely doesn’t work either,” he said. “It creates a sense of despair.”

To move from talk of what is right policy to the reality of daily life is to enter a totally different conversation, one about the never-ending logistics of poverty: the hunt for space in a small house with 10 other people, the ailing family members who are wholly dependent without technically being “dependents,” the tenuousness of recovery while living among addicts, the hopelessness of finding decent work with a felony record.

One man in Milton spoke of losing a job loading trucks when the employer looked up his bad credit report. A woman who lives some miles out in the country said it was nearly impossible to work as a waitress in a town when the last bus comes and goes at 7 p.m.

“You see people in these hills around here that can’t get out to a job because they have no vehicle,” said Jerome Comer, 47, who left rehab last year and is now working in the warehouse of Facing Hunger. “You say, ‘Well, they’re able-bodied Americans.’ Yeah, but they live 40 miles out in the holler. They can’t walk to McDonald’s.”

Mr. Comer moving a pallet at Facing Hunger.

Mr. Comer moving a pallet at Facing Hunger.

Mr. Comer had been raised by a disabled mother reliant on food stamps and had relied on government assistance himself when he was a younger man with a family, even though he was working two jobs. That is the thing: Most working-age adults on food stamps are either already working or are between jobs.

But the jobs are unstable and inconsistent — as in the Peytons’ case, paying too much to qualify for benefits one month, offering too few hours to qualify the next. That is the root of the problem, Mr. Comer said. But addressing it would be a lot more expensive than food stamps.

“If they could come up with a work program for these people to give them jobs and transportation and everything, I’d agree with that,” Mr. Comer went on. “If you’re an able-bodied American and you ain’t got a job and they’re going to give you one and give you the means to get back and forth to it, that’s great. But then what’s that going to cost you?”

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Comment by caribmama on January 19, 2020 at 1:04pm

White folks will cry and actually have to work.

Comment by mr1stroke on January 17, 2020 at 11:46pm
This year will be a repeat of of 2008 many white folks will have a rough times, it is not because of Trump but because of tough decisions, for the new year majority of the public dont know many of the cuts and moat of them are by democrats, start with states like NY do people even know the new laws, so its really not about party line. Every politicians have one thing in common "tax revenues" tax payers pay for everything
Comment by El-Bull on January 17, 2020 at 11:09pm

mr1stroke LMAO you're right

Comment by mr1stroke on January 17, 2020 at 12:21am
El-Bull many have to suffer in order to fix the system, Trump was a private citizen when he used to speak about how broken system is, ot waz not about black or white that man used to talk about how people in general was beating the system many business people agree with him, the more people that relies on hand out the more poverty you will have, not every one wants to rely on free bees some people wants opportunity those white people can get out and work like every one else after all they say black people are lazy so why should they suffer now they should be working, so now that he is doing it to white people why is everybody are blaming him, is he not racist enough, shouldn't black people be happy or is it the part that they are feeling sorry for white people, i mean what's the matter now, if its about white people why are black people mad?
Comment by El-Bull on January 16, 2020 at 9:16pm

mr1stroke vaughn mitchell not only will the people be hurt by the cuts, business such as bank , grocery stores, mom and pop stores, Walmart etc all will suffer.....By the way, I'm from South Philly ;-) 

Comment by vaughn mitchell on January 16, 2020 at 3:23pm
Ahh, white people will suffer. I guess Trump, forget that it's mostly white people on food stamps, not minority's. All those white people in West Virginia, will feel it. All those commercials, and news media, mostly showing black people on food stamps was a lie. All those Jews, that live in Rockland County, and the 5 Burroughs, will feel it.
Comment by mr1stroke on January 16, 2020 at 10:18am
I came from the slump of North Philly ask any one about growing up in those areas in the 90s and you will see the best og us came from the struggle and not complaining
In 1992 my mom was laid off with 4 kids and she was denied food stamps and welfare Donald Trump was not president then, so if the article is talking to white people it is reason enough for black people to take a break from complaining, wr cannot forget the pain and suffering but we can reach for a better tomorrow, its a new decade shouldn't complaining and blaming be the past when will we make those people feel stupid like the jews, the decisions the community make everyday are killing us, you have your views i have mine , you had your experience i have mine, if i can make it so do the others, and today North philly is still bad especially with people from NY over populating the City thats why many of us moved out
Comment by mr1stroke on January 16, 2020 at 10:11am
Nahisha thats the problem every one wants to blame others their struggle when as a people we inherited poverty and anyone can tell you poverty is a curse its up to one to break that curse, not every one can walk to a bank and get a loan to start a business, thats not my concern when i wanted to start mine, i saved, i work full time and waz involved in my families business, my uncle paid tye school at NYU when i saw how much they were charging and i was not guaranty a good job that can cover students loan and a good living i made a deal to last 2 years and the remainder i would take as a loan

I went to my family for a loan and we still operate like that as well as invest together, until today i neither have a brand new car and never had a car note in my life, now can the other negros say that, they live on projects buying Gucci and paying high car notes, every time i comment i speak about minorities because there is always a blame to others instead of taking the struggle make our selves stronger and move ahead, just like in your comment always someone who will make excuse how we are all struggle but in 2020 every one of those same people are involve im everything why the complaint?
Comment by Nahisha on January 16, 2020 at 9:48am
Also, every time you post you bring up comments about minorities. Why is that? It's not minorities that's complaining because they know what it means to struggle. They've been doing all of their lives. But when u read the article they're not speaking to minorities? Something to think about
Comment by Nahisha on January 16, 2020 at 9:45am
I hear what ur saying but in the same breath. How many people can walk into a bank and get a loan to start a business? How many of those people are colored. Everything in this world is about race. Minority Kids are not taught in school how to fill out a w4 form or how to do taxes. Those same kids become adults with the same issues. Now College...Everyone that goes to college and graduate leave in debt in the thousands. Now jobs fun fact there are many no lead jobs. But how many end up with careers. You may like Trump policies because it doesn't affect you negatively but when it does and it will eventually let's have this talk again.

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