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SNAP benefit changes go into effect Jan. 1

Changes are coming to what was once known as the food stamp program.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said adults who don’t have dependents and are between 18 and 49 and receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program must qualify for an exemption or participate in a work or educational program for 20 hours a month or risk losing benefits.

This new requirement goes into effect Jan. 1 in 36 of the state’s 55 counties, including Monongalia, Preston, Tucker and Marion.

“Welfare programs must strike a balance,” said John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“They must help those in need but they must also guard against abuse. A requirement such as this guards against abuse. Further, this requirement also helps encourage recipients to ultimately become self-sufficient and therefore achieve a higher level of prosperity for themselves, also while making the overall welfare program more sustainable,” he said.

The policy change is for able-bodied adults without dependents to seek employment opportunities.

“The counties selected for this program have the lowest unemployment rates in West Virginia, which indicates an economic environment conducive to workforce re-entry,” Linda Watts, commissioner of the DHHR’s Bureau for Children and Families, said in a release.

SNAP recipients in the 36 counties can be exempted from the work or educational requirement if they are receiving benefits under 18, or are working 30 hours a week earning $217.50; receiving unemployment compensation; regularly participating in a drug addiction or alcoholic treatment and rehabilitation program; responsible for caring for an incapacitated adult; a part-time student; medically certified unfit for work, or receiving veteran disability income.

Despite the exemptions, Milan Puskar Health Right’s Laura Jones said the changes will be problematic for some of the people they treat.

“We have many patients who are unable to work, but have not yet made their way through the lengthy process of applying and successfully getting social security disability,” Jones, the clinic’s executive director, said in an email.

“Other folks are struggling to survive being homeless or don’t have the skills necessary for the jobs that are available. We know people who are unable to read well, but are not considered disabled.

These challenges will be even more difficult if SNAP benefits are taken away from these folks. Not to mention what happens if they happen to have diabetes, which requires a certain diet and eating at regular times.

Jones said the changes will also put a greater demand on local food pantries that are already struggling to meet community needs.

“Food needs to be available to everyone because it is essential for life and health. We can feed people and work with them to provide training or employment. Making food contingent on work or education is not in the best interest of many people.”

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