By Teresa Wiltz 

The House version of the food-stamp-to-work program Congress is considering this week would require recipients to enroll in job training programs if they can’t find work — but in many states, those programs won’t be fully available for at least another decade.

This will have a big impact on the people who depend on food stamps, some 42 million in 2017. The average beneficiary receives about $125 a month, and a family of four must have an annual income of about $25,000 or less to qualify. Many are already working.

Lawmakers’ effort to increase work requirements continues a trend in the past year of asking impoverished families to put so-called “skin in the game” when receiving government benefits. In this case, the families don’t have full control over what’s being required of them: If Congress requires more food stamp recipients to get jobs, states will have to greatly expand training programs to comply with federal law.

States that don’t offer training for beneficiaries who are required to work could lose federal funding.

“We’re a little more ready than other states to jump,” said Babs Roberts, director of the Washington State Department of Social Health Services. “But this scares the hell out of me.”

The food stamp program — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — already includes some work requirements. So-called “able-bodied adults without dependents”­ between the ages of 18 to 50 are limited to three months of benefits every three years unless they work or get training. 

The House version of the farm bill, which funds SNAP, would require able-bodied adults ages 18 to 59 to work at least 20 hours a week or get training. It would also provide states $1 billion a year to meet new work training requirements.

The Senate version of the farm bill would not expand SNAP work requirements. Members of the House and Senate are meeting behind closed doors this week to develop a final version of the farm bill.

Under federal law, states must offer work training programs, called SNAP employment and training, to food stamp recipients, but they have wide flexibility when it comes to implementing the programs.

The House bill would require that states provide job training slots to 3.4 million people each month by 2021 — and track as many as 7.5 million to ensure they are meeting work requirements, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that tracks budget impacts on low-income people.

Many states would have a hard time offering job training to all of them — especially in the next two years, which is what the House bill calls for.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that it will take more than a decade for states to ramp up their job training programs. State work training programs vary widely, the CBO found, and “offering training services to all eligible recipients would require many states to expand their programs substantially.”

By the end of 2028, according to the CBO, only about 80 percent of food stamp recipients who are subject to the work requirement would be offered such services through a state program.

The Trump administration last month announced plans to consolidate social service agencies under a “Council on Public Assistance,” which would establish uniform work requirements for all public aid recipients.

Under a pilot program established in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, 10 states are testing various strategies to help food stamp recipients find jobs.

They include child care, transportation, drug and alcohol counseling and financial incentives for enrolling and participating in the projects. Some states are offering “pre-apprenticeship” programs in the construction trades, psychological evaluations and help with housing.

The federal government is contributing money and technical assistance but the pilot project ends this year.

“Scaling up a high-quality training program is not a small feat,” said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy research group based out of Washington, D.C.

‘Ready for Jobs’

 

Many working food stamp beneficiaries are stuck in low-paying, low-skilled jobs and can’t afford to put food on the table.

Most work training programs don’t provide much more than computers and resume assistance for job seekers, critics say. Under some programs, food stamp recipients perform low-skilled tasks such as picking up trash or removing graffiti to offset the value of their benefits.

“High-quality job training programs that are effective are those that build particular skills that get people ready for jobs in the labor market,” said Elizabeth Wolkomir, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “And they can be quite expensive.”

Under the Department of Agriculture’s pilot program, California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Vermont, Virginia and Washington state won grants ranging from $9 million to $22 million.

Georgia selected 2,500 food stamp recipients to participate in Georgia SNAP Works 2.0, which is modeled on a medical HMO. Participants work with case managers who coordinate with other state agencies and employers to get them trained and placed in manufacturing, warehousing, transportation, medical, automotive, building maintenance and welding careers — fields that pay much better than minimum wage.

Delaware has trained its food stamp recipients in the culinary arts and the manufacturing and construction industries.

To get a successful work development program off the ground, “you first need to figure out a high-demand job,” said Kelly Tessitore, who runs a work training program for food stamp recipients at Jewish Vocational Service Inc. in Boston, a community-based nonprofit. The program is often cited as a national model.

“Then you figure out what kind of people would be good at that job, and what skills you can give them in a reasonable amount of time,” Tessitore said. She also testified about work training programs in April before a House subcommittee.

Washington state began experimenting even before it received a grant. Since 2005, it has collaborated with community colleges and local workforce training programs to offer classes to food stamp recipients.

Most of the people who have completed the program have found steady jobs with regular raises, according to state data. Washington is using its $22 million grant from the USDA to focus on food stamp beneficiaries with serious barriers to employment, such as the mentally ill, the homeless and veterans.

Participants are assigned a case manager, and get counseling to help them navigate problems such as drug addiction or finding affordable housing. They also are required to take a six-week life skills course, and language and math classes.

Still, Roberts said, she’s worried that mandatory work requirements will punish families that face considerable barriers to long-term employment, such as problems with reading and writing.

She’s also worried that states will have to divert staff and resources to comply with federal law — tracking food stamp recipients to make sure they’re working the required hours — rather than helping families find stable employment.

“We need time to work with these families,” Roberts said.

At an event sponsored by the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute in May, U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas and the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, said the goal of the work requirements was to “make SNAP better, focus it more on work and the positive impact it can have on families.”

Doubling Salaries

 

Oregon, which did not receive one of the grants, is also cited as a model.

Since 2016, Oregon community colleges have used a mix of local, state and federal money to help food stamp recipients cover the cost of tuition, books and supplies. Students also work with education coordinators and employment specialists.

Food stamp recipients can enroll in Portland Community College’s maritime welding program, which operates on a 60-acre shipyard where some of the state’s biggest shipping companies are located.

Students who graduate from the 25-week course receive a certificate saying they are qualified for high-skilled welding jobs, which they also can use toward college credit. The college offers a similar certificate in health care.

A June report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that young people under age 30 enrolled in the Portland program reaped sizable bumps in pay after earning their certificates, in some cases more than doubling their salaries. (The study looked at outcomes for all certificate holders, not just those who receive food stamps.)

“This is a real boost for younger workers,” said Kate Kinder, who runs the SNAP career development programs at the community college. “This can help prevent — and end — generational poverty.”