Employment and training program at risk

Through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly known as food stamps assistance – she was able to participate in SNAP Education and Training (SNAP E&T) through Seattle Jobs Initiative’s Medical Business Information Technology program.  She completed her training, excelled in her internship at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and now works in a well-paying job at Children’s as a Facilities Service Coordinator.  According to Dede, “I might not have always had clothes or a place to live – but I will always have my education.  You just can’t take that away.”

By law, unless otherwise exempt, unemployed individuals receiving SNAP must register for work and must accept a job when offered appropriate employment. Without SNAP E&T, SNAP recipients like Dede, would be stuck taking low-wage, low-skill jobs. The program helps recipients to obtain the skills necessary for jobs that will allow them to provide for their families and exit the SNAP program. However, this program is at-risk if a bill proposed by the House leadership becomes law.

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Last week, the House narrowly passed a proposal that would allow states to cut off SNAP benefits for most adults if they are not working or participating in an employment or training program for at least 20 hours a week. The proposal would create a perverse financial incentive for states to take up this option by allowing them to keep half of the federal savings from cutting people off of SNAP.

States that decline to take up this option would face a fiscal penalty, as they would lose all federal matching funds for their existing SNAP E&T programs. The proposal offers no funding for job creation, work or workfare programs, or new employment or training programs. States would receive no recognition for actually helping SNAP recipients find and retain employment, but rather would be rewarded solely on the basis of declining SNAP caseloads.

Most SNAP recipients aren’t equipped with the skills to compete in today’s labor market. In 2010, four out of five SNAP households did not include anyone with education beyond high school, while an estimated one-third of these households did not even include a high school graduate. In Washington state – as is true in most states – two-thirds of all jobs created in the next decade will require at least some postsecondary education or training. To move SNAP recipients off of the program and toward economic self-sufficiency, they need access to SNAP E&T programs that provide them with skills leading to well-paying jobs.

Washington state’s SNAP E&T program, Basic Food Employment & Training (BFET),  does just this, and illustrates both the powerful impact SNAP E&T can have in paving the way to success for SNAP recipients as well as what our organization, our state and the nation may well lose under the House proposal.  BFET is a rare demonstration of collective impact, with more than 20 community-based organizations (CBOs) – including SJI – and nearly all of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges participating together to provide an array of critical skills training options and support services to low-income Washingtonians.

SJI’s BFET program has served more than 4,000 individuals in the past eight years. These are individuals characterized by a high degree of motivation and a willingness to work hard to succeed but who – primarily for want of job skills – had previously cycled between minimum wage jobs and unemployment, accompanied by a need for public supports.  By helping our BFET participants complete community college professional technical programs and earn college credentials in key local industry sectors, they have taken off, many securing for the first time a career job.  A recent study of our BFET participants found that those completing industry sector training earned $4,100 more annually on average than they did prior to entering the program.

Statewide, BFET has demonstrated strong employment and earnings outcomes for some of the hardest to serve individuals in our community. Nearly 50,000 Washington residents have been served by BFET in the past eight years, significantly boosting employment and wage rates for participants and ultimately helping them move toward economic self-sufficiency. 

BFET emphasizes vocational training – giving participants the skills they need for better paying jobs. The employment rate for BFET participants two years after exiting the program is 68 percent. During the worst of the recession, individuals who took advantage of BFET were 33 percent more likely to be employed than people just receiving SNAP benefits alone. BFET programs will be at-risk if the House SNAP proposal becomes law.

Congress has one week to pass a Farm bill before current law expires. However, what the House is proposing—demanding that SNAP recipients must work without making sure they have the skills employers are looking for—is the wrong approach. Federal policy should help low-skill, low-income individuals prepare for careers in high-demand industries that provide well-paying, family-supporting jobs, which is exactly what BFET has done for Dede and many thousands more Washingtonians. Rather than callously cut funding for critical programs, Congress must invest in programs like BFET, and provide SNAP recipients with the skills they need to compete in the labor market, find a family-sustaining job that leads to economic self-sufficiency, and ultimately move off of SNAP.

Kim is executive director of the Seattle Jobs Initiative.

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