In a move that could ultimately change the nation's largest antipoverty program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is asking for state proposals that would make work a higher priority under the food stamp program.

The feds are looking for proposals for three-year pilot projects that aim to reduce the use of public assistance while increasing earned income and unsubsidized employment. Part of the $200 million offered will go toward a third-party evaluator to test the effectiveness of the different pilots. "Before we can say, pour more money into [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)] employment and training or cut it altogether, we have to see whether it works," said Ed Bolen, a senior analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. "Hopefully these pilots will give us information to make sure they are effective."

This appears in our free Human Services e-newsletter. Not already a subscriber? Click here.

Results from the pilots are likely to influence future debates in Congress over adding work requirements and other performance measures to food stamps. Critics of food stamps argue that the current program encourages the poor to become dependent on government assistance. The number of people receiving food stamps in an average month grew from 26.3 million in 2007 to more than 46 million in 2013. Last year, the average monthly benefit per person was about $133, but because the total number of people in the program has increased, the annual cost grew from about $33 billion to about $80 billion over the same period.

Historically, the chief objective of food stamps has been to combat hunger among the poor, not to place people in jobs. While states are required to offer employment and training services to food stamp recipients, most of the programs are small and not designed to track earnings and employment. But in the farm bill passed in February, Congress set aside funding for experiments that tie food stamps to work outcomes.

"SNAP has not had what I would call performance reporting," said Steven Erbes, the SNAP employment and training coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. "It's been seen as, 'We need to fill a gap between somebody's income and somebody's ability to eat well.' Now we're moving into the employment arena."

One key demographic group targeted by the pilots will be a small subset -- about 15 percent -- of overall food stamp recipients: able bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD), essentially anyone on food stamps who isn't disabled, younger than 18, older than 50, the parent of a child under 6, an adult already working at least 30 hours a week, or an adult who is already in another workforce training program.

The federal government is already supposed to hold this group accountable for finding work. To receive food stamps for more than three months in a 36-month period, people have to either work for 20 hours a week or participate in a work-related activity for 20 hours a week. But states can get waivers on those requirements in times of high unemployment -- and most have -- which has troubled conservatives who note that the ABAWD population more than tripled between 2007 and 2012.

It's too early to know which states will win the grants and what kinds of pilots will be tested, but the farm bill does outline some basic selection criteria. The pilots have to:

  • take place in both urban and rural areas;
  • target individuals with limited skills or work experience;
  • and appear easy to replicate in other states and political jurisdictions.

Perhaps the most important criterion is that the pilots have to test a range of strategies, including job search assistance, job training, child care subsidies and the removal of barriers to work (such as substance abuse and mental illness). The farm bill specifically calls for testing both mandatory and voluntary employment and training programs.

In effect, the pilots will test two conflicting visions for the future of food stamps, both of which risk unintended consequences. One vision is represented by the mandatory work programs, which antipoverty advocates worry might discourage eligible people from applying for food stamps. The other vision, using food stamps to connect the poor to additional work supports, might provide an incentive for people to enroll in food stamps, expanding caseloads.

Those conflicting visions reflect states' current divergent policies regarding public assistance to the poor, CBPP's Bolen said. "Some states have an approach that forces folks to do an activity to keep the benefit. Others try to offer resources to give people the qualifications they need to move up and leave poverty." The pilots may finally shed some light on which approach is more effective.

The official request for grant applications was released Aug. 25, setting a submission deadline for states in late November. By next February, the Department of Agriculture is scheduled to announce which pilots it will fund, and by October of next year states would launch their pilots.