House Ag digs into getting SNAP recipients back to work

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2016 - Finding a way to get welfare program recipients back in the workforce has been a tricky proposition, but on Tuesday, a House subcommittee dove into the issue.

The House Nutrition Subcommittee convened a hearing to study employment and training programs affiliated with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, specifically in a few states that received grants for projects through the 2014 farm bill. Subcommittee chair Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., said that these pilot projects provide a unique perspective on the conversation around getting SNAP recipients back to self-sufficiency.

“This is evidence-based research,” she told reporters after the hearing. “This is real research, these are real, tangible things now that we have and these aren't somebody throwing out hypothetical situations, this is going to make a difference.”

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One potential issue with using these pilot projects to influence policy decisions, specifically the upcoming farm bill, is that the pilot projects aren't expected to be completed until 2021, about three years after congressional ag leaders hope to produce a new farm bill. Walorski brushed that concern aside, saying policymakers still can glean enough information from the programs.

“I think interim reports are going to be important, and we're going to be able to see different kinds of things that are going to start rolling out, but I can't stress enough: This is the first time that we're going to be able to look at evidence-based research,” Walorski said, pointing out that much of the prior conversation was driven by anecdotes or opinions.

“We're going to see trends that work, and we're going to see things that maybe haven't been considered before,” she added, “but I am very optimistic after listening to these folks today that these pilots are working.”

This was the 17th SNAP-related hearing either the subcommittee or the full House Agriculture Committee has held in the 114th Congress. Witnesses from three states - California, Georgia, and Washington - testified about their respective pilot programs that work to lead SNAP recipients back to the work force. In all, ten states received funding from the 2014 farm bill.

The program in California is focused on Fresno, where the Fresno Bridge Academy takes a holistic approach to fixing issues that lead to receiving SNAP benefits. The voluntary program deals with job training and workforce readiness, but it also takes a look at family issues and tackling things like drug problems or student truancy.

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Pete Weber, the academy's founder, said that if the whole picture is not considered, the employment education is not being used to its full potential.

“If we weren't there, that program for training would just go down the tubes really quickly, because their attention is going to the next crisis,” he said.

Weber used an example of a couple with two children who were struggling to get by. Both parents had criminal records, presenting a barrier to entry to employment. Through the 18-month program, Weber said the father was able to obtain a job as a forklift operator, the mother's criminal record was expunged, and the family was removed from the welfare rolls.

The academy can boast “800 more success stories,” Weber said. It is currently expanding to assist more people, but funding issues and a lack of professional program staff have proven to be obstacles to that expansion.

This hearing was absent the typical opposition from vocal Democrats frustrated with the approach to SNAP oversight. However, one of the amendments blamed in the failed 2013 farm bill vote in the House dealt with work requirements for SNAP recipients, so opposition from that side of the aisle could surface if a similar approach is tried again in the upcoming bill. With that in mind, Walorski said these programs could provide a way to change the conversation about SNAP recipients reentering the workforce.

“I think this gives us a great amount of things to talk about and discuss … what we can best do to address the needs of people and protect taxpayers at the same time,” she said.

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