Connecting state and local government leaders
“If we want to do this, let’s do it well,” according to Pete Weber of the Fresno Bridge Academy. “What’s being proposed needs some adjustments.”
Four years ago, House Republicans in Congress placed in the Farm Bill a directive to establish 10 pilot programs across the nation to provide enhanced employment and training opportunities for people receiving benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The projects, spanning states from California to Mississippi, were instructed to collect data for seven years, then report their findings to Congress. Broader implementation could follow.
Proposed changes in this year’s Farm Bill push that timeframe to the side, requiring increased work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries. The changes would require states to beef up their existing employment training programs, expanding enrollment to SNAP participants who can’t find jobs. Implementation would occur before Congress receives final results from the existing 10 pilot projects.
“We set up these pilot projects and the idea was to figure out what works and doesn’t work,” Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota, said last week during a House committee hearing on the bill. “Why don’t we wait until we know what’s actually going [to work] before jumping off the cliff?”
Proposed Rule Changes
Under current rules, the only people who must work to qualify for SNAP benefits are adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have dependents and are not disabled. The Republican-proposed changes would expand the age limit to 59 and include parents, but only those whose children are older than 6.
If the bill passes as is, the number of people subject to work requirements could double, to as many as 7 million, according to estimates from the House Agriculture Committee. SNAP recipients who fall short of the 20-hour-per-week work requirement could lose benefits after one month.
Republicans say the changes are meant to encourage people to find steady work and lift themselves out of poverty, goals that could be achieved by expanding employment and training programs.
“The best type of food security is to help people enter the workforce,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican who is the vice chair of the Agriculture Committee.
But Democrats say the funding provided by the bill—$1 billion per year, starting in 2021—is not enough for states, many of them already overworked, to implement the sweeping changes.
“This bill poses an unfunded—I don’t think it’s even underfunded, it’s an unfunded mandate on state bureaucracies to oversee the implementation of this bill’s new requirement,” Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat from New Mexico, said during the hearing. “Which further destabilizes an already … disjointed SNAP system in the country and in my state.”
Republicans have said that the proposed changes would not institute any “new bureaucracy,” but would instead encourage state agencies to strengthen existing partnerships with community organizations who may be able to help with employment and training programs.
“One of the accusations is this creates excessive and unneeded new government bureaucracy to implement the SNAP employment and training program. That’s just false,” Thompson said.
Instead, the bill encourages states to leverage “willing and able partners” to utilize external programs, he said, granting administrators “the flexibility to provide services to best meet the needs of their state.”
Beyond that, the bill does not contain specific guidelines about the recommended employment and training programs, leaving many of the details to state governments to sort out. According to preliminary reports to Congress, pilot projects have been plagued with many of the same problems that trouble state agencies, from burnout and high turnover to low completion rates among participants, at least partially due to lack of follow-up.
But others, including those that utilize public-private partnerships, have fared better.
The Fresno Bridge Academy, one of the USDA’s 10 pilot projects, began as a standalone entity in 2010. The academy is an 18-month program that aims to place people—generally a family’s main breadwinner—in jobs fairly quickly, but counselors work with the participant’s entire family and monitor clients throughout the length of the program to ensure success and sustainability. Participation is voluntary, which preliminary reports from pilot projects suggest correlates with a higher completion rate than in programs where participation is mandatory.
More than 80 percent of clients are placed in stable employment, and 83 percent of those people remain employed by those companies after a year. Thirty percent achieve self-reliance before graduating from the 18-month program, according to Pete Weber, its founder and director.
Like all program officials, Weber is not permitted to speak about the results of his pilot until final reports are submitted to Congress in 2021. But the pilot project within the academy functions much like its long-standing regular program, which boasts high completion rates, Weber said.
“We know it’s our clients who will have to do the hard work to achieve self-reliance. They’re the ones that have to get the GEDs, go through the training, go to work,” Weber told Route Fifty in an interview. “Our mission is to enable them. We don’t just enroll individuals, we enroll complete families, and that’s very, very important.”
The Fresno Bridge Academy, which has since expanded to the larger California Bridge Academies and now operates in five counties, runs on private donations as well as federal SNAP funding. Its high success rate, Weber said, is largely due to adequate staffing levels that include case workers—known as “career and family navigators”—with a relatively low workload that decreases over time, as participants progress through the program and become more self-reliant.
“A new career and family navigator will enroll 15 families per month until they reach a cap of 60,” Weber said. “There’s a ramp-up period that’s very intensive, but after they’ve been placed in jobs it’s kind of a maintenance period, and the requirement for frequency of contact is reduced.”
The program relies heavily on public-private partnerships. In 2016, the Fresno Bridge Academy referred clients to 118 outside organizations for 176 different kinds of services, all but one with pre-existing sources of funding. That allows the organization a measure of cost-effectiveness, spending just $1,800 per family over each 18-month period.
If the program ran entirely on government funding, Weber said, “we’d be able to do most of what we do, but we have to have some private funding to implement our model with fidelity. There are some things we are just committed to doing, like working with the children in an affected family. And most of that we do through referrals to people that are funded to do that work.”
Traditional state-run models typically spend more but offer fewer services, with no assurance of successful outcomes. The proposed expansion of those programs could work, Weber said, but would most likely require more funding and a longer timeline for implementation.
“My concern is that we implement this change with sensitivity to the funding and timeline required to be able to successfully do this. If we want to do this, let’s do it well,” he said. “Right now, I think there is a disconnect there. What’s being proposed needs some adjustments.”
Putting the Cart Before the Horse?
The House Agriculture Committee voted along party lines to advance the Farm Bill, including the proposed SNAP changes, to the House floor. But even if the legislation passes that chamber, it’s unlikely to gain traction in the Senate, where leaders have said publicly they’re not interested in entertaining dramatic changes to the SNAP program.
That fact frustrated House Democrats, none of whom voted in favor of moving the legislation out of committee.
“To use an old farm term, I think they’re putting the cart before the horse,” Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat from California, told Route Fifty in an interview. “If this were to happen, we would create a situation in which we’re setting states up for a tremendous level of failure, because it’s just not well vetted. This isn’t going to pass the Senate, so why are we going through this exercise?”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
NEXT STORY: Kansas Birth Rate Drops to All-Time Low