WV Center on Budget and Policy > Blog > Family Economic Security

Food Assistance Cutoff Needlessly Harms Vulnerable West Virginians and Economy

Yesterday, the House Health Committee passed out HB 2132 that imposes a statewide three-month time limit for SNAP food assistance for childless adults that are working fewer than 20 hours per week. This bill mirrors a similar provision found in SB 60 and HB 2741 that was discussed previously in this blog.

If enacted, these bills would bar the state from applying for a federal waiver to temporarily suspend the federal requirement that limits SNAP to three months out of every three years for childless, non-disabled adults unless they are working at least 80 hours per month, participating in a qualified job training program, or in workfare. States are allowed to apply for the waiver to suspend the time limit in areas of sustained high unemployment. While West Virginia used the waiver to suspend the time limit statewide in years past, Governor Tomblin ended the waiver in nine counties beginning January 1, 2016 that had low unemployment. These bills would suspend the waiver statewide indefinitely regardless of whether there is high unemployment or a major crisis such as a flood or natural disaster.

Though work requirements may sound good – especially in a state with historically low workforce participation – denying food assistance to unemployed and part-time workers will do little to encourage employment. It will, however, increase food insecurity for thousands of West Virginians, drain millions of federal dollars from our economy, and put additional strain on our food pantries, soup kitchens, and charities that are already stretched thin.

SNAP Time Limits Put the Poorest and Most Vulnerable at Risk

The population subject to the three-month time limit are childless adults who are unemployed or working below 20 hours a week. These individuals are extremely poor, most only have a high school degree, and many are veterans, homeless people, noncustodial parents, and people with a mental and physical limitation. Most childless adults on SNAP are also strongly tied to the workforce. According to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

  • Childless adults participating in SNAP have an average income of 29 percent of the poverty line or $3,400, while 46 percent live in households with no incomes and three quarters live in a household with income below half the poverty line ($5,835 for one person). 
  • Over a quarter (28 percent) of childless adults on SNAP have less than a high school education, and more than half  (57 percent) have only a high school diploma or GED. Approximately 15 percent have some college education or a college degree.
  • Approximately 75 percent of SNAP households with a childless, working-age adult worked in the year before or after receiving SNAP while many of those not working while receiving SNAP were actively looking for work.

In 2015, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks released a report that assessed about 5,000 childless adults on SNAP who were referred to a work experience program in Franklin County, Ohio. The report found that many low-income childless adults face multiple challenges to employment, including little access to transportation, criminal records, mental and physical limitations, frequent job dismissals, no drivers license, and homelessness.

Because many childless adults on SNAP have these barriers to employment and independence, there are limited job or volunteer opportunities that match their abilities.

Expansion of SNAP Time Limit To Struggling Counties Makes No Sense

While most of the nation has recovered from the Great Recession, West Virginia has not. Most counties are still struggling with very high unemployment. Enacting a time limit to food assistance in areas of high unemployment and a lack of job opportunities when a temporary waiver of the time limit is available makes no sense. As discussed earlier, West Virginia has already ended the waiver in nine counties in West Virginia that had relatively low unemployment and higher population density (i.e. access to more jobs) and expanding it to distressed areas of the state will only makes things worse for low-income adults. Many of these areas have been hit particularly hard by the recent decline in coal production, such as Mingo County that has an unemployment rate of almost 10 percent.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHR), there are 7,310 non-exempt childless adults  on SNAP in the other 46 counties in West Virginia that would be cut off of food assistance if the state is forced to implement a three month limit. DHHR has already cut 5,417 people off of SNAP in the nine pilot counties where the federal work requirement restriction was put into place on January 1, 2016.

Though it is unknown how many childless adults on SNAP found employment after being cut off, DHHR found that the program has not “had a significant impact on employment figures for the ABAWD [able-bodied adults without dependents] population in the nine issuance-limited counties” and that they have not seen a “clear increase in the number of ABAWDs maintaining benefits sue to meeting the work requirements.” In fact, of the 13,984 state-wide referrals made to the SNAP Employment & Training Program in 2016, only 259 gained employment. Most likely, this means most people lost food assistance because they had barriers (see above) to meeting the work requirement.

Experience in Kansas Shows Time Limit Did Little to Encourage Work

While some proponents of imposing a three month time limit on SNAP highlight that it has been effective in raising employment, a careful analysis of the evidence suggests that imposing the time limit had little effect on work but did cause thousands of poor residents in Kansas to lose food assistance. The chart below looks at the number of childless non-disabled adults in SNAP before Kansas imposed its three-month time limit (Quarter 3, 2013) and a year after it was imposed (Quarter 1, 2015). Over 20,000 people stopped participating in SNAP after the Kansas benefit cutoff. The number of non-disabled childless adults on SNAP that were working also declined, from about 6,200 to 3,570. Though some have touted this as a success since the share of people working increased (from 21 percent to 42 percent), it really just reflects the number of caseload changes, not improved circumstances.

The much larger and important question is what happened to those that were cutoff of SNAP in Kansas. While we don’t know about what happened in Kansas, research in other states has found that most remain poor and that many do not find work and struggle with various other problems, including a lack of health insurance, adequate housing, and trouble paying monthly bills.

Cutting Off Food Assistance Hurts Our State’s Fragile Economy

The loss of federal dollars from SNAP flowing into the state is significant. According to DHHR, the average monthly SNAP benefit is $203.20. This means the state lost approximately $15 million in federal SNAP benefits that would other wise be in the state’s economy in 2016. If the state is forced to impose the time limit on the other 46 counties, this would amount to $17.8 million in lost federal money for the state. This does not take into account that SNAP has a high economic multiplier, which will lower economic growth. For every $1 in new SNAP benefits, it results in an estimated $1.80 in total economic activity.  Imposing the time limit would also strain local nonprofits and private charities who will have to serve this population with food assistance and other supportive services.

Another major concern about the existing three month time limit in the nine pilot counties, and expanding to the other 46 counties, is that capacity of DHHR to work in rural areas to connect these individuals to jobs and training. As discussed above, this population faces several barriers to employment or volunteer work because of a lack of transportation and other challenges that are more acute in rural counties. DHHR estimates that it would cost over  $2 million  to extend the SNAP E&T program to these other counties, draining the state of resources when it faces a $500 million budget shortfall this year.

Instead of cutting thousands of more low-income people from food assistance by permanently tying the Governor’s hands from providing food assistance in areas that are struggling with job opportunities, the legislature should be exploring non-punitive ways to help connect more people to jobs and to ensure our most vulnerable residents have access to the services they need to achieve self-sufficiency.

 

Who Are the West Virginians Who Would Lose Coverage Under ACA Repeal?

A recent WVCBP report looked at many of the people who could lose health coverage from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act – including small business workers and those working in various industries. Last week, the Urban Institute released state fact sheets with more demographic information on this population – with details on income, age, race, education, and employment status.

Of the estimated 184,000 West Virginians who would lose coverage from repealing the ACA, 84 percent have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level – which is considered the amount of income a typical family needs to make ends meet. Approximately 44 percent of those that could lose coverage are below the federal poverty line, which was $24,300 in 2016. If the ACA is repealed, the share of those below the federal poverty line without health insurance would grow fourfold, from 7 percent to 28 percent, according to the Urban Institute.

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Repealing the ACA would especially impact those in West Virginia without a college degree. Of the 171,000 adults who would lose coverage, 90 percent do not have a college degree. Approximately 91 percent are white, while 5 percent are black and 2 percent are Hispanic.

Among West Virginians who are expected to lose coverage, 73 percent are in working families. This figure is even higher for some families: 79 percent of children and 80 percent of parents who would lose coverage are in families with at least one worker.

 

Keep Payday Lending Out of West Virginia

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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has proposed rules that, if strengthened, could rein in the worst abuses of payday and car title lending. Thankfully, West Virginia protects against abusive payday and car title loans, but the CFPB still needs to hear from you.

Add your voice now to stop the debt trap!

Payday loans notoriously carry 300+% APR (annual percentage rate). Strategically located in low-income neighborhoods, payday lenders intentionally trap borrowers in debt that they cannot escape. The average payday borrower is trapped by ten transactions in a year.

Though payday lenders are not allowed in our state, we still need a strong national rule. Payday lenders will use a weak rule to seek a green light to come back into West Virginia.

Support a strong rule to stop these predatory practices.

Thank you so much for acting today.

Using Private Contractors to Verify Eligibility in Public Assistance Programs Wasteful & Could Hurt Families

The Senate and the House have introduced bills (SB 312 & HB 4454) that aim to make it harder for low-income people in West Virginia to receive public assistance benefits (such as SNAP, TANF and Medicaid), while potentially draining millions from the state’s economy and denying benefits to those in need. Dubbed the “Welfare Fraud Prevention Act,” the legislation has three core components:

  1.  It creates an enhanced eligibility verification system (EVS) that would be run by a private third-party vendor whose task would be to screen people on public assistance (administered by DHHR) to determine eligibility. 
  2. Eliminates federal work waivers for SNAP (food stamps) for non-disabled adults by limiting SNAP to just three months.
  3. Requires photos on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards that provide contain food stamp (SNAP) benefits and cash assistance (TANF).

The legislation also requires additional data reporting of services provided by physicians and others that treat Medicaid patients and it requires the Department of Health and Human Resources  (DHHR) to track out-of-state spending on SNAP and TANF.

Both bills mirror model legislation from the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-wing advocacy group associated with the Koch-funded State Policy Network.

This post is going to focus on the first core provision – creating an enhanced verification system. While West Virginia – and especially the federal government – should be doing all it can to stop fraud and errors in public assistance programs, this legislation could not only cost the state millions, but could wrongly deny assistance to thousands of likely eligible people.

According to DHHR, to contract with a third-party vendor to create a computerized eligibility verification system it would cost $10 million per year. The legislation  would require hiring 64 additional staff at DHHR’s Office of Inspector General and Fraud Management (OIG) to carry out state-wide investigations at a cost of nearly $4.3 million. About half of these costs would presumably be shared with the federal government ($7 million). 

As DHHR correctly notes, it already maintains a computerized verification system (RAPIDS) that meets many of the provisions in this legislation, including the use of various databases within state and federal government to ensure eligibility. (All states use some form of a verification system for public assistance programs such as SNAP and Medicaid.) Therefore, requiring an additional private contractor to carry out this task may lead to huge inefficiencies and overlap, not to mention potentially reducing essential services. The concerns of DHHR where echoed in 2015 by Montana Governor Steve Bullock when he vetoed what was nearly a carbon copy of the bill introduced this year in West Virginia.

While no state has implemented a third-party enhanced verification system to cover as many public assistance programs as the one described here,  the state of Illinois implemented one for its Medicaid program in 2012. Its experience offers a cautionary tale of how such a program can fall short on savings while also denying people public assistance.

Lessons from the Illinois Experience

In 2012, the state launched the Illinois Medicaid Redetermination Project (IMRP) with $70 million of authorized funds (two years) to hire a private contractor (Maximus) to redetermine if people enrolled in Medicaid were still eligible. Based on recommendations provided by the private contractor, state caseworkers sent letters to Medicaid enrollees who they deemed may be ineligible. If these households didn’t respond within 10 days or sent information confirming their ineligibility, their benefits were discontinued.

According to the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS), a large majority (84%) of households losing Medicaid coverage in 2014 had their coverage cancelled because they did not respond, rather than not being eligible. And 89 percent of households who did lose coverage due to a non-response were “likely eligible,” according to Illinois DHS.

According to a recent academic journal article by Michael Koetting – who was deputy director of the Illinois DHS from 2010 through 2014 – “at least half of the people removed [from Medicaid] were actually eligible, perhaps a lot more.” In 2015, according to Illinois DHS, more than a third of households whose Medicaid health coverage was cancelled had their coverage reinstated.

Another important consideration in this redetermination process carried out by Illinois was that the people most likely to be found ineligible were not big users of the program nor did they make up a significant portion of state Medicaid costs. According to Koetting, during the first six months of the project “roughly half the people removed from the rolls had not used Medicaid services in the previous six month” and “those removed clients who had used services had used markedly fewer than those who stayed.”

The promised savings from this program never materialized. While the Foundation of Government Accountability predicted (and still says) that Illinois would save $350 million in 2013 from implementing this verification system – while the state estimated it would save $150 million in 2013 – the state only saved $2.6 million during that year. In short, the state of Illinois spent millions of dollars on a private contractor to collect data the state already collected that led to canceling health care coverage for people that were likely eligible.

SB 312 and HB 4454 contain pernicious incentives to encourage removal of those on public assistance

One of the most troubling aspects of this legislation is that it creates a financial incentive for the contractor (third-party vendor) to remove West Virginians from public assistance programs. According to section C of § 9-10-2, the bill sets up a contractual arrangement where a vendor can only receive payment if it is able to remove West Virginians from public benefits programs and show cost-savings to the state. This could, in turn, result in the use of tactics that are meant to terminate enrollment for people who are eligible for programs.

As discussed above, this concern is warranted based on results from Illinois. In Illinois the private contractor showed “savings” by removing people from the state Medicaid program for failure to respond to mail after 10 days. These Illinois residents were removed from the Medicaid program regardless of actual eligibility and regardless of whether they had actually received the letter. This is not an acceptable practice and this legislation seems to encourage such practices that could be just a backdoor way to cut public benefit rolls without having a public process to change eligibility.

Moving Forward

West Virginia should learn from the Illinois experience  that this approach to eliminating fraud in public assistance programs is not a fiscally sound approach and it could lead to a myriad of untended consequences that impact the well-being of our state’s most vulnerable population.

The state should focus its limited resources on more modest proposals to eliminate ineligibility in public assistance programs, such as making it easier easier to communicate with an adequate number of caseworkers.  Moreover, the state should focus resources on initial eligibility determination and adequate screening. And if the state and federal government really want to focus on where large potential savings can be realized, those efforts should aim to curtail fraud from undisciplined contracting and billing with vendors who are in a position to aggregate program benefits.

Drug Testing TANF Recipients a Proven Failure at Addressing Substance Abuse

The West Virginia Senate votes today on a bill to drug test welfare recipients. SB 6 would create a three-year pilot project to drug test TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Last year, a similar  bill stalled in the Senate Finance Committee, never making it to the floor.

The bill’s sponsor, Senator Ryan Ferns, describes the bill as a way to “…assist individuals who need help and get them help,” and, while West Virginia does face a substance abuse problem, there is no evidence that targeting the state’s poorest with expensive and unnecessary procedures will help solve it.

SB 6 would require drug testing of applicants for TANF for whom WV DHHR employees have determined there is a “reasonable suspicion” of substance abuse. In December 2015, there were 7,715 TANF (also known as WV Works) cases in the state. Of those about 2,882 were adult cases, while 4,833 were child-only cases.

The fiscal note for the bill shows estimated costs of $50,000 in the first year, and $22.000/year after implementation. This only includes the costs of the drug tests themselves, which the bill requires DHHR to pay for, at an estimated cost of $56.50 per test.

While the bill requires applicants who fail a drug test to enter enter rehabilitative and workforce training programs in order to keep their benefits, it does not pay for treatment. Applicants who fail a drug test would be required to pay for treatment on their own to keep their benefits. The fiscal note for last year’s version of the bill included the estimated costs of treatment, which were $4,600 for a six-week outpatient drug treatment program. In comparison, the average monthly TANF benefit in West Virginia is $340 per household, making paying for substance abuse treatment prohibitively expensive for most TANF recipients.

While the fiscal note for West Virginia’s proposal is small, the experience of the other states with drug testing programs shows that the programs can become very costly to run, with no active program generating any savings for the state.

These programs have also failed at identifying substance abuse among their TANF populations. Reports from  Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Tennessee all show that their drug testing programs have all failed at identifying any significant number of substance abusers.

Research has shown that the percentage of welfare recipients using drugs is relatively small and consistent with those not receiving welfare. And the experience of basically every state that has tried drug testing TANF recipients has shown that it fails at identifying any significant number of substance abusers. So how are we helping those who need help, as Senator Ferns puts it, by drug testing TANF recipients? The answer is we’re not helping anyone.

Proposals like SB 6 are based on stereotypes about prevalence of substance abuse among recipients— not evidence. The fact is that drug testing welfare recipients is a flawed and inefficient way at identifying people who need treatment. No study has shown that denying assistance facilitates substance abuse treatment, and requiring someone who does need help to pay up to $4,600 in order to keep their $340/month in benefits creates only additional barriers to treatment. 

Investing in substance abuse treatment is an efficient use of taxpayer dollars, but expensive and unnecessary policies that are based more on stereotype and punishing the poor than on facts and evidence are not. If West Virginia wants to tackle its substance abuse problem, we need to look at what works.

5 Things You Need to Know about “Right to Work” in WV

The West Virginia Legislature is poised to enact a so-called right-to-work (RTW) law this week. The House of Delegates is taking up an amended version of the “WV Workplace Freedom Act” this afternoon. The law would prohibit unions and employers from negotiating a contract that requires employees who benefit from union representation to pay for their fair share toward those costs.

So far, 25 states have enacted RTW laws, predominantly in the South and Southwest. While right-to-work laws have nothing to do with guaranteeing jobs for workers, some in the business community view it as a strategy for attracting new businesses to locate in West Virginia, despite its downside risks of lowering wages and hurting unions that helped build the middle class in our country.

Here are five important things you need to know:

 1. It’s about lowering wages and eroding workplace protections. As an economic development tool, the professed aim of RTW is to reduce the power of unions by depriving them of resources (dues), which ultimately weakens the union and strengthens the employers’ hand in bargaining for lower pay and benefits. By decreasing the likelihood that businesses will have to negotiate with their workers, this will lower labor costs, reduce the cost of doing business, and will supposedly incentivize out-of-state manufacturers and other businesses to locate in West Virginia. If RTW didn’t lower wages and weaken workplace protections across the board, there would be no incentive for companies to move to West Virginia. This, in a nutshell, is the hope of RTW supporters such as the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

 2. Academic research is unanimous that RTW reduces unionization. While there is no strong evidence that RTW laws help or harm a state’s economy, there is a broad academic consensus that it weakens labor unions. If this happens, it could mean even worse economic and social outcomes in the state. This is because unionization is strongly associated with higher economic mobility, less income inequality, higher wages, safer workers conditions, better benefits and larger voter turnout.

 3. The WVU report on RTW is fundamentally flawed. While a recent study by John Deskins at West Virginia University concluded that RTW would boost jobs in West Virginia, the study is fraught with basic design problems. For example, the WVU study misidentifies that Texas and Utah adopted RTW in the 1990s, when both states adopted RTW before 1960. The WVU study also failed to adopt a standard academic practice that accounts for unobserved differences between states, such as the advent of air-conditioning in the South, access to oversees markets, and other important state characteristics. When researchers at the Economic Policy Institute accounted for these problems and replicated WVU’s findings, they found no relationship between RTW status and employment growth. Tim Bartik, an economist with the Upjohn Institute and one of the country’s leading economic development experts, recently reviewed the WVU study and concluded that it “does not provide any convincing evidence that a state that adopts RTW laws will, as a result, experience faster job growth.” The flaws with the WVU study highlight why state policymakers should not rely on its conclusions to adopt RTW.

 4. RTW is not about “workplace freedom.” While RTW proponents define ‘workplace freedom” as letting workers opt out of paying a representation fee to pay for the benefits they are receiving under any negotiated union contract, most would define workplace freedom as being treated with dignity and respect on the job. That means getting paid an honest wage for an honest day’s work, and having access to benefits such as paid sick days, paid family leave, health care, and a retirement plan. The only freedom workers would receive if RTW were enacted is the ability to get something for nothing.

 5. Low workforce skills are the central reason for West Virginia’s economic woes, not lack of RTW. A recent in-depth study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky that explored why the state is so poor found that the shortage of skilled workers – not RTW – was the central reason for the state’s relative poor economic performance. Since West Virginia faces many of the same social and economic problems as Kentucky, policymakers would be well advised to promote polices that improve the skills of the state’s workforce instead of RTW that could reduce workforce training.

While we are all worried about our economic future and want to build a strong economy in our state with good-paying jobs, enacting right to work is not going to get us there. Instead it may hurt working families by redistributing income from workers to employers and from middle-class taxpayers to the wealthy.  I hope the legislature in West Virginia will see that we can’t build West Virginia by tearing down working families and unions. Instead we need  to focus on the policies that we know work, such investing in early childhood education, research and development, higher education, workforce training, and effective ways to help more people get out of poverty. 

Will “Right-to-Work” Grow West Virginia’s Economy? Not Likely

Back in November, the Business Bureau of Economic Research at West Virginia University released a study by John Deskins that concluded that the adoption of a “Right-to-Work” (RTW) law in West Virginia would boost employment and GDP growth, have no discernible impact on wages, and reduce unionization rates.

The problem with the WVU study – and many studies that look at the economic impact of RTW laws – is that it is very difficult to untangle the impact of RTW laws on a state’s economy from other important factors (e.g. air-conditioning, infrastructure, quality of life, etc.).  Another problem in teasing out the effects of RTW laws is that there are not a lot of  natural experiments where you can look at the before and after impact of RTW on a state’s economy.

While Indiana (2012), Michigan(2012), and Wisconsin (2015) have recently adopted RTW laws, only two states since 1980 have done so – Idaho (1985) and Oklahoma (2001) – that provide an opportunity to provide some significant correlations between RTW laws and state economic performance. This is precisely why state economic development expert Tim Bartik found that the WVU RTW study offered no conclusive evidence that RTW would boost economic development.

There are only two recent peer-reviewed academic studies (non-think tank studies) that examined the effect of RTW laws in Idaho and Oklahoma – both by Ozkan Eren (Louisiana State University) and Serkan Ozbeklik (Claremont McKenna College). Eren and Ozbeklik’s most recent study (2015) on the effects of RTW in Oklahoma found that it decreased private sector unionization and had no impact on employment, private sector wages, or the manufacturing sector. And unlike the WVU study that did not include any caveats about the impact RTW would have on West Virginia, Eren and Ozbeklik conclude that even with these results in mind, that there is “still no clear consensus among policy makers and researchers” of RTW laws on state economies.

An earlier study (2011) by Eren and Ozbeklik that looked the effects of RTW in Idaho and Oklahoma found similar results for Oklahoma (no impact on manufacturing wages or employment or per capita income) while in Idaho it found that RTW increased manufacturing employment but had no effect on per capita income.

These findings are illustrative of  why we should always proceed with caution in expressing certainty over the impact of RTW laws on state economic outcomes. This is one of the major shortcomings of the WVU study by John Deskins. For example, the WVU study concludes that RTW “would lead to a decrease in private-sector union membership, and an increase in employment and output growth in West Virginia.”

As Yogi Berra said a long time ago, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. And this conclusion illustrates why this study does not rise to the level of scholarship found in peer-reviewed academic journals.

Another problem with the WVU study is that its own analysis seems to contradict its conclusion that passing RTW in West Virginia “would” increase the state’s job growth. As economist Tim Bartik notes

The West Virginia study includes information that undermines the claim that adoption of RTW laws “certainly” increases job growth. The study includes some information on trends before and after RTW adoption in 10 states that adopted RTW laws after 1950. In 5 of these states, job growth increased after adoption of RTW, and in 5 states job growth decreased after adoption of RTW. This very mixed and uncertain result is representative of the overall findings of RTW research.  Based on current evidence, it is highly uncertain whether RTW laws have any positive effects on job growth. 

Despite promises from RTW supporters in Oklahoma that the law would boost manufacturing job growth, the opposite has happened. Since the adoption of RTW in 2001, Oklahoma has lost over 38,000 manufacturing jobs. While the adoption of RTW in Oklahoma most likely did not cause these manufacturing job losses, claims that RTW would boost manufacturing employment clearly did not materialize.

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While the debate about whether to adopt a RTW law is mostly about political power and the ability to “free ride” on the benefits provided by union representation, the economic research – as we highlighted in this earlier report – shows that RTW is unlikely to boost economic growth and it could, as Bartik suggests in this State Journal article, pave the way for a lower-wage economy in the Mountain State. This means less freedom for working families and more economic stagnation.

Limiting SNAP is Counterproductive, Won’t Boost Employment

As of January 1, the West Virginia Department of Human Resources (DHHR) has added a so-called work requirement to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Under the policy, adults aged 18 to 50 with no dependent children must participate in a work or educational activity for a monthly average of 20 hours per week in order to maintain SNAP eligibility, with some exceptions. In West Virginia, there are about 37,000 adults who could lose SNAP benefits from this policy change.

Federal law limits able-bodied adults to three months of SNAP out of every three years unless they are working at least 20 hours a week, participating in a work training program at least 20 hours a week, or participating in some other workfare program. States can request a waiver of these limits in areas of high unemployment, and most states waived the time limit statewide during the recession and slow recovery. Now WV’s DHHR is letting the waiver expire for nine West Virginia counties.

Unemployment in West Virginia has risen sharply in the past year, even as it had never fully recovered from the recession. Now the state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 39,000 fewer West Virginians employed now than there were before the recession.

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Even in the nine counties chosen by DHHR to let the waiver expire, the economy has not fully recovered. While they were chosen because their unemployment rates are low, there are more unemployed workers and fewer employed workers in those nine counties than there were before the recession.

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With the slow recovery contributing to a weak job market in West Virginia, many people have trouble finding enough to eat. The share of households in West Virginia experiencing food insecurity has grown from 8.8 percent in the early 2000s to 15.3 percent in 2012-2014, a full percentage point higher than the national average, while nearly one in five West Virginians is living in poverty.

With fewer West Virginians working than before the recession, even in the counties with the lowest unemployment rates, it’s clear that many still need help while they search for jobs. But DHHR has decided to limit SNAP for able-bodied, childless adults to just three months of basic food assistance during a three-year period if they aren’t working in nine counties. 

To be clear, the policy change is a time limit, not a work requirement. Calling it a work requirement suggests that it encourages people to look for work and provides a training or workfare position to everyone subject to the time limit. However, individuals working up to 20 hours per week and those looking for work are still terminated from SNAP after three months. An able-bodied adult without dependents must work 20 hours a week, participate in a job training program for 20 hours a week, or perform workfare in order to receive more than three months of benefits.

While DHHR has suggested that there are sufficient slots in employment and training programs to accommodate all of the recipients who may need them in order to maintain SNAP eligibility, as WVCBP friend Betty Rivard asks, it is unclear whether recipients will have the transportation they need, or the type of training that improves their skills and moves them toward available jobs. Further, administering the provision is a complex and difficult task. Identifying who on the caseload is qualified, screening for exemptions, tracking months of participation, and monitoring hours worked and participation in training programs requires new systems, forms and notices as well as substantial training and support of eligibility workers. States need time and resources to prepare.

Those at risk of losing their SNAP eligibility are an extremely poor and vulnerable group. Individuals subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of approximately 17 percent of the poverty line (or about $2,000) and over 80 percent have incomes below half of the federal poverty line, and they typically qualify for no other income support. Many face significant barriers to work, such as returning from military service, homelessness, felony convictions, a lack of transportation, or lack of a high school diploma.

Individuals Subject to the Time Limit Have Very Low Incomes

Food benefits are paid for with federal dollars and are already very modest, averaging about $150 to $170 per person per month for this group. Denying these benefits to the unemployed will do nothing to create new jobs and will not save the state any money. What it will do is increase food hardship and the burden on local food banks struggling to serve the hungry. People who will be cut off from food assistance because of this rule are some of the poorest people in the state who, for the most part, are not eligible for other types of assistance. Now, it will be harder for them to eat.

Most West Virginians would likely agree that it is unfair—not to mention uncompassionate—to deny food assistance to someone who is searching for a job, but is unable to find one because of a shortage of jobs. But that is exactly what the administration’s policy change is poised to do.

Census Data Shows Thousands Gaining Health Insurance, But Many Still in Poverty

The Census Bureau released the 2014 American Community Survey (ACS) this week, which contains data on poverty, income, and health insurance coverage for all 50 states. For West Virginia, the data release had both some really good and some not-so-good news.

First the good news. The 2014 ACS release was to first to have data on health insurance coverage with the Affordable Care Act in full effect, including the expansion of Medicaid. And, as one of the states that opted to expand Medicaid, West Virginia saw a major decline in its uninsured population. The number of West Virginians without health insurance coverage fell by nearly 100,000, from 14% of the population, to just 8.6%, the third biggest decline in the country. The decline in the number of uninsured was more than 10 times bigger than any previous year’s change. Now over 91% of West Virginia’s population has health insurance.

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The Affordable Care Act is largely responsible for the decline in West Virginia’s uninsured population. As part of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid was expanded to people making up to just $32,500 per year for a family of four (138 percent of the federal poverty rate). The Supreme Court, however, left it up to the states to decide whether to extend their benefits to these families and accept the federal funding to do so. In May of 2013, Governor Tomblin decided to expand West Virginia’s Medicaid program, and as of June 2015, more than 164,000 newly eligible West Virginians are receiving health insurance through expansion.

Other provisions of health care reform are also helping reduce the number of West Virginians without health insurance. 33,000 West Virginians have enrolled in health care plans through the state’s new health insurance marketplace, which allows people to easily compare prices and benefits of health care plans. Many of these people receive federal subsidies to help them pay their premiums and reduce their out-of-pocket health costs.

The expansion of health insurance largely benefits low-income working families. Children under 18 and West Virginians participating in the labor force made up more than 2/3rds of the decline in the uninsured population.

It wasn’t all good news for West Virginia from the Census Bureau, however. While the data release from the ACS showed significant progress in insurance coverage, the state is not seeing any progress in reducing poverty. The state’s poverty rate in 2014 was 18.3%, essentially unchanged from 2013 and still above its pre-recession levels. One in four children in West Virginia lives in poverty. In addition, the state’s median household income hasn’t budged since the recession, and at $41,059, is the 2nd lowest among the 50 states.

But just like policies such as the Affordable Care Act made a difference in the state’s uninsured rate, theyy can make a difference when it comes to poverty. Enacting a pro-work state earned income tax credit would open the doors of opportunity for people at low-wage jobs by letting them keep more of what they earn to help pay for things that allow them to keep working, such as child care and transportation. This will help build a more secure future for these families – including their kids – while boosting local economies across the state. In contrast, proposals to cut taxes for the wealthy and businesses would close the doors of opportunity, taking away resources from services families rely on every day without boosting the economy or creating jobs.

A state earned income tax credit, set at 15% of the federal credit, would supplement the existing federal earned income tax credit and benefit 158,000 working West Virginia families. It would provide an average credit of $332 a year to those families and put $52 million back into local economies in West Virginia. Twenty-six other states and the District of Columbia already have a state earned income tax credit.

 state eitc infographic

20,000 West Virginians Would Be Eligible for Overtime Under New Proposal

Yesterday, the Obama administration’s Department of Labor proposed a new rule that will raise the overtime salary threshold from $23,660 to $50,440 by 2016, and index it for the future. This change will extend overtime protection to about 5 million workers in its first year, including 20,000 in West Virginia

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers eligible for overtime must be paid “time-and-a-half” or 1.5 times their regular pay rate for each hour of work per week over 40 hours. Currently, hourly workers in most service and blue-collar jobs are guaranteed the right to overtime pay.

For salaried workers, the right to overtime is determined by their pay and nature of work. Currently, salaried workers who earn below $455/week ($23,660/year) are eligible for overtime, but workers who earn more than $455/week can be exempted from overtime if their occupations are considered professional, administrative, or executive.

The current salary threshold has not kept pace with inflation or the changing economy. In 1975, the overtime salary threshold covered about 62 percent of all salaried workers, compared to just 8% today. Had the threshold kept pace with inflation since 1975, it would be about $52,000 today. The proposed threshold largely restores its lost value.

This calculator allows workers to see how much extra they can earn each week under the new rule.