One in five West Virginians seeing reduction in food assistance benefits

Oct 31, 2013

An automatic reduction to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, will begin taking effect today, cutting benefits for more than 47 million people across the country. 

West Virginians rely heavily on this assistance program, with about 20 percent of the population enrolled.

A Kanawha County man who is already struggling to provide for his family said this national cut means he will have to make even harder choices in the near future. 

                                                         

Rick Hodges is a single dad raising his 7-year-old daughter in Cabin Creek. Hodges was a subcontractor for a cable company for 17 years, but was hurt on the job in 2001. Now, he relies on disability and food stamps to provide for his family.

“I don’t eat a lot of times. I just make her food," said Hodges. " I might eat what she don’t eat. In fact, I just did that this week one day.”

This week, Hodges received notice from the state Department of Health and Human Resources that his benefits were being cut from $79 to $59 a month.

“That’s $20 less food I can buy for my daughter. That’s $20 I’ll somehow have to come up with out of my check and that means not paying the sewer bill,” said Hodges. “If you don’t pay your sewer bill, they want to cut your water off so that really puts you in a bind. That’s a large cut. That’s a very large cut.”

But he’s not alone. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, nationwide will be cut by more than $5 billion Friday, affecting more than 14 percent of U.S. households, as a temporary boost when 2009 federal stimulus package automatically expires.

For West Virginia, that means the average family of three’s benefits will be cut by 29 dollars or 16 meals a month based on numbers from the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Executive Director of the Healthy Kids and Families Coalition Stephen Smith says about 350 thousand working West Virginians will feel the impact first hand.

“Poverty doesn’t look like someone who is not working and relying on government,” said Smith.

“Poverty looks like, especially in West Virginia, a majority are people who are working sometimes two or three jobs and making minimum wage which everyone knows isn’t enough money to get by on and those are a lot of the people who are receiving SNAP benefits to try to fill the gap at the end of every month.”

In West Virginia, the program is funded exclusively through federal monies. SNAP Senior Policy Specialist Marsha Stowers said the budget will shrink by nearly $2.7 million this month.

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and it was temporary. It increased net benefits across the board in efforts to stimulate the economy and the law was set to expire November 1, 2013. So, as of right now, the state doesn’t have anything they’re going to add,” she said.

Communities, however, are working to fill the gap left by federal funding. Smith said over the past few decades, as the economy has worsened, charities and food banks have started to step up to help families make ends meet.

Even with the 40 to 50 thousand new programs created across the country in the past few years, the number of people who are food insecure has only increased, showing that what they can do is not enough.

“It is absolutely clear that those cannot fill the gap and we’ve seen that in West Virginia,” said Smith. “Talk to anyone who is running a backpack program or a feeding program, they see increasingly more and more working families showing up and they’re still not making the difference they need to.”

Hodges said he’s had that experience, traveling from food bank to food bank in southern West Virginia just to make it through the month.

As for what he thinks lawmakers should be doing when it comes to SNAP benefits:

 “I would tell them thanks for the stimulus that we did have, but there’s going to be children that go hungry because of this cut. They have to look themselves in the mirror and know that there are kids going to bed because of cuts that are going to be hungry and crying and sick for school the next morning,” said Hodges.

Hodges said the reduction in the program will be a challenge for him, but he isn’t giving up.

“No matter what they throw at us, we have to make it. We can’t just blink our eyes and disappear from the world. We have to somehow find a way.”