How Do You Help A Food Stamp Recipient Get A Job?

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Everyone seems to agree that the government should be doing more to help connect people who earn too little to support themselves with jobs that will return them to self-sufficiency. Now, the government is spending about $175 million on experiments in 10 states to scrutinize various ideas for providing economic mobility to families that need food stamps to get by.

Most of those experiments involve a shift from thinking to doing, but one of them is targeted to a long-running and comprehensive local service provider in California. Even before its new expansion, the Fresno Bridge Academy developed the kind of track record that makes it likely to emerge as a national model whenever the results of all these pilot programs come in.

The programs, which range from a $9 million effort in Vermont to a more than $22 million project in Virginia, explore how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, better known as food stamps) could be used to improve job training and career services for low-income families. While the vast majority of SNAP recipients aren’t supposed to be working at all, and almost no working-age recipients stay out of work for long, the system’s Education and Training (E&T;) component remains underutilized by most states.

Fresno County, CA is home to the single most successful SNAP E&T; program in America, if founder Pete Weber is to be believed.

“I don’t think there’s anybody else in the country who can claim the kind of success we can claim,” Weber told ThinkProgress, “and it’s because we’re approaching things holistically.” That success is striking, according to numbers that Weber’s Fresno Bridge Academy has crunched on the economic impact of the 1,000-plus SNAP recipients who have found jobs through the group. Every dollar spent on the Bridge has returned $22.28 in economic benefits, the group told the Fresno Bee. Weber said in an interview that about $17 of that comes in the form of higher earnings for the family in question, “but $5.50 goes back to the taxpayers” in the form of reduced spending on SNAP and higher income tax collections.

The idea behind the Fresno Bridge Academy is relatively simple, though actually executing it is complicated. “State and federal programs are almost inevitably siloed,” Weber said, describing his group as “a clearinghouse” for connecting people in need with services that would otherwise be difficult to access or outright invisible because of language barriers, transportation constraints. “We work with 33 partners that provide services to our clients” and “build on what exists” rather than replicating others’ efforts, Weber said.

Caseworkers from the organization engage heavily with entire families, rather than just with the individual who receives SNAP money. The group identifies the combination of formal schooling, informal life skills training, and concrete resources such as childcare that a family needs in order to begin climbing out of poverty. Bridge centralizes as many services as possible at its Mosqueda Center, and maintains a pair of other facilities in parts of the county that are physically accessible to impoverished communities. By focusing on vocational training that’s linked to the types of middle-skill jobs that employers in the area tell Weber they struggle to fill, the Fresno Bridge Academy has been able to place hundreds and hundreds of graduates in jobs with 126 different employers. Graduates have gone on to career positions in a wide range of industries including solar panel installation, medical support, and heating/air conditioning maintenance, as well as jobs in lower-skilled fields like retail. “We don’t put people into dead-end jobs,” Weber said, describing the group’s A-B-C thinking: “First get A job, then get a Better job, then get a Career.”

Most participants get placed into a job within six months, but the program runs 18 months so that beneficiaries continue to have support from caseworkers during their first year at work. That extra time is important, Weber said, because “a lot of the people who participate in these programs have had very hard lives, they’ve been beat up a lot, and some of the resiliency has been taken out of them.”

The $12.1 million pilot program grant announced in March will allow Fresno Bridge Academy to open six more facilities, and Weber hopes to reach thousands more people in his high-poverty county as a result. “We wanted to expand,” he said, not just “because there’s a lot of need in Fresno County but also because we think this is a model that needs to be looked at for adoption with adaptations in other counties in CA and other places around the nation.”

Every state is required to have some job training offerings, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities senior policy analyst Ed Bolen explained, but “states have a lot of flexibility in how they operate those programs.” Accordingly, the states’ programs target a range of different ideas about how to get SNAP recipients the skills they need for the workforce.

One of them makes Fresno’s barely-five-year-old program look downright ancient. Delaware’s pilot program is “so brand new that it won’t even start until this fall,” said Jill Fredel, communications director for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. “All the participant employers, the partners, they have never been brought together in terms of employment opportunities.” Participants in Delaware’s pilot program will be placed into one of four employment training tracks, each associated with an established company or organization. Manufacturing trainees will be eligible for positions at a Kraft factory in Dover, for example, while construction trainees will apprentice on building rehabilitation projects in Wilmington.

The current funding system for E&T; leaves states to pick up some of the tab for the most aggressive and expensive forms of job training and workforce intervention on behalf of low-income families, Bolen told ThinkProgress, “and so they often don’t have big enough E&T; programs to provide something to everybody who would be interested.”

The broader E&T; system “has been significantly underutilized by most states” despite stark evidence of the need to target workforce training to food stamps households, according to the National Skills Coalition. Sequestration and the 2013 government shutdown took an additional chunk out of the budgets of various workforce training programs, and overall federal spending on workforce education and training has fallen by 14 percent since 2010.

The roughly $175 million in pilot program funding that USDA unveiled in March isn’t a magic pill to cure the country’s labor market or raise the share of working-age SNAP participants who get jobs from “almost everybody” to “literally all of them.” But it’s an investment in figuring out which ideas about fighting poverty seem to work best. The results that come back from these 10 state projects will provide a basis for comparative evaluations that so far doesn’t exist, according to CBPP’s Bolen. “I think some states have been reluctant to be creative about working with local philanthropists or third-party matches,” he said, “because they don’t know if it’s gonna work. If they’re confident that it’s gonna work, that might spur some states to put money into this.”

“One of the interesting things about SNAP E&T; is there hasn’t been much data or much requirement to report on outcomes for individuals,” Bolen said. “Did they actually get a job? Did they increase their earnings? It’s hard to know what to do because nobody’s been required to report on it.”

Looking around at food stamps policy fights at various levels, it’s easy to feel like change is in the wind. Conservatives at the federal level continue to push for massive cuts to the program — despite overwhelming evidence that its costs remain firmly tied to the country’s economic health, and are falling naturally as the job market recovers — and their state-level counterparts are advancing stringent rules both for who can receive food stamps and for how they can be spent.

Much of the debate around anti-hunger policy proceeds from ideology rather than facts, and the results of the new pilot E&T; programs might help change that. “Before Congress makes changes to what the SNAP E&T; program is,” Bolen said, “let’s take the 10 best shots we can to figure out what works, and look at the outcomes.”