Nearly 50,000 West Virginians on public assistance will have to return to work or risk losing their food stamp benefits.
West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources announced on Dec. 21 that it's reinstating requirements for people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) benefits in nine counties, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports.
Residents in those counties will have to find jobs -- at least part-time employment -- or enroll in job-training classes in order to keep their benefits. Starting Jan. 1, food stamp beneficiaries will have three months to find work or start the job-training courses.
“Because of the unemployment rate in West Virginia, we tried to look at a smaller population,” Nancy Exline, commissioner of the state Bureau for Children and Families, told the Gazette Mail. “These are counties where jobs and training opportunities are available, where these individuals would have the opportunity to meet the requirements and keep their SNAP benefits.”
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Those counties are Kanawha, Putnam, Cabell, Monongalia, Berkeley, Harrison, Morgan, Jefferson and Marion.
West Virginia's unemployment rate was 6.5 percent in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But that doesn't tell the entire story -- less than half of the adults in West Virginia are employed, the lowest percentage among U.S. states, MarketWatch reported in March.
West Virginia's economy is heavily dependent on the coal market, and the collapse of the coal industry has severely impacted its people and government, prompting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to make over $100 million in emergency budget cuts in October.
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The food stamp rule change will impact only adults ages 18 to 49 who don't have children or disabilities, according to the Gazette-Mail.
It's the first time since 2011 that West Virginia has imposed work requirements, and about 30 percent of those receiving food stamps were booted from the program for not complying with the requirements last time around.
If West Virginians don't comply with the 2016 rule change at a similar rate, about 14,000 of the state's 47,700 SNAP beneficiaries will lose their benefits.
The work requirement wasn't welcomed by groups that advocate for the state's low-income residents.
“The policy change is really about imposing a time limit for food assistance, not a work requirement,” Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, told the Gazette-Mail. “This is a complicated rule, and there is a risk that otherwise eligible people will get kicked off, which has happened in other states.”