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.
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.
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.”
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 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?”