West Virginia was in national news earlier this week and, as is the usual case when our state draws the attention of the likes of the New York Times, it was not a positive story.
The story headlined “What happened when a state made food stamps harder to get,” illuminated the struggles of low-income families in West Virginia after a policy change four years ago brought stricter requirements to food stamps.
The change affected nine counties, and because the Trump administration implemented a similar change across the country in April, the Times decided to use our counties as a microcosm so see how these restrictions could play out. The answer is, simply, not great.
Enforcing work requirements does not sound like a radical or even controversial idea on its surface — after all, why should the government support people who are not willing to work for themselves? Why should our taxes pay for the lives of others who aren’t working as hard as we are?
These are easy questions to ask if one has not had the life experience of abject poverty. Picture what it takes in America to live, what it takes to even work a regular job. Working requires transportation to and from the worksite. Transportation at the very minimum requires a bus fare, but most of us in West Virginia live in rural areas that do not include public transit. So we need a vehicle, which requires both an initial purchase and ongoing costs for fuel and maintenance.
Next, depending on the job, most require at least a minimum standard of personal hygiene. This will require electricity and water, a washing machine or money for the laundromat, money for toiletries. The point is, it’s far from free just to have a job, and it’s hard to get one without money for the basics.
Work requirements for welfare completely ignore how difficult it is to scrape by in America at a certain level of poverty. They harm those who need the most help, and those families are less likely to be able to get a job now because the money that might have been used on transportation and other requirements for work must now be spent on food.
There was hope at the time that these work requirements would increase the employment rate in the counties and force people who were able to work and receiving food stamps into the workforce.
According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, this was not the case. Instead, the growth of the labor force in the nine counties affected by the policy change, which took food stamps away from around 5,410 people, lagged behind the rest of the state. So not only did families lose a reliable source of food for themselves and their children but the counties in which they lived suffered economically.
Another aspect the legislature either failed to consider or ignored was the increased demand from homeless shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries to provide meals for those who could not afford them without government assistance. That need has not receded in the four years since the work requirements were implemented.
There is no perfect system, and sure, somewhere there’s probably a family in poverty who refuses to work even though they’re able. But the data seems to show that work requirements do far more harm than good, both to honest folks who are having a tough time and to the counties they live in.
It’s far past time for our state and country to show more empathy towards the economically disadvantaged instead of assuming they brought their situation upon themselves.