House Ag Committee turns to case workers for SNAP advice

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 10, 2015-The House Agriculture Committee continued its review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) today with a hearing that examined the experiences of organizations that work with individuals needing assistance.

Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said a greater level of engagement is needed between SNAP, the former Food Stamp program, and the more than 46 million people who received monthly benefits from the program last year. Last year, more than $78 billion was budgeted for the program, or more than 60 percent of USDA's mandatory spending.

Lets Talk Food

“SNAP, along with other programs and approaches, should be temporary support as individuals improve their financial situation,” Conaway said in an opening statement, emphasizing the importance of SNAP recipients finding work to climb out of poverty.

Grant Collins, the senior vice president of Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, told the panel of the experience he's seeing from his WeCARE program, which helps people with health claims find work. The outcomes “suggest that more can be expected from those that have been told or believe they cannot work or achieve self-sufficiency,” he said.

“I believe that knowing the dignity of work can become a viable path out of poverty and far more can work than we may have thought possible including those with health and other challenges.”

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., discussed a problem called the “benefit cliff” that often discourages SNAP recipients from finding a job or keeping one. The “cliff” results when a person gains employment or a raise and subsequently loses most of government benefits they've been receiving, including SNAP, housing and childcare support.

“If I'm choosing between feeding my children…[or] $200 more dollars a month, I'm going to do the right thing and take care of my child,” Grisham said.

Leon Samuels, the executive director of STRIVE DC, a workforce development nonprofit, said it would be helpful if the government could find a way to “not just cut off benefits,” but “gradually wean” individuals off benefits as they move up the economic ladder.

“When we have a system set up in place that doesn't incentivize somebody to get off [government assistance], then we have to find out how to fix it,” said Rep. Rodney David, R-Ill. He noted that the witnesses at the hearing shared how they are moving individuals off welfare “despite the limitations” imposed by the government, such as the “benefit cliff.”

Collins, with Fedcap, told lawmakers that a program that allows “maximum flexibility” at the local level is essential to improving this situation. Another witness, Elisabeth Babcock, the CEO of Crittenton Women's Union, suggested subsidy programs be structured in way that support income gains. 

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., defended SNAP and said the only solution to moving recipients away from benefits is “increasing wages.” He also suggested that the series of hearings Conaway has called to review SNAP may not be aimed solely at improving the program.

“I have no idea where these hearings are leading to. But I have a sinking feeling in my stomach that they're not leading to a place that's good for millions of struggling Americans,” he said. “It should be clear to everyone on this committee who has sat through at least five SNAP hearings already - that SNAP is something that is working.”

Charities and non-profits tell Congress that they cannot feed the hungry on their own; they need a strong federal partner, McGovern added.

However, Conaway said the idea that his hearings are “some subversive attempt to cut the program…could not be further from the truth.”

Noting that the realities of the food assistance, housing and job programs are all funneled down to the case managers who work for the witnesses' organizations, Conaway said “this government is ill-suited to do what you do. We put one size-fits-all programs in place and it doesn't work everywhere.”

He said his committee is trying to use the experience of today's witnesses to find a solution to the “benefit cliff,” adding that people are being forced to turn down hours of work “because of the way we have things structured.”

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