Tuesday, May 26, 2020
May 26, 2020

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States putting new work requirements on food stamps

Washington a leader in using programs to train workers


WASHINGTON — When Milwaukee resident Linda Hopgood found out last summer she was about to lose her food stamp benefits, she immediately started looking for work. But she said she quickly became discouraged by employers telling her she did not have the skills they were looking for.

The 48-year-old former nursing aide has been out of work for four years. She lives in her son’s house and spends her days watching her daughter’s three children. Without the $187 in food stamps she had received each month for the last seven years, she’s now walking to church every day for free meals.

Hopgood lost her benefits when Wisconsin reinstated work requirements for food stamps. With 22 new states reinstating the requirements as of Jan. 1, another 500,000 or more people could find themselves in her situation by spring.

The reinstated requirements are only for able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who have no young children living with them. If they do not work 80 hours per month, or take part in 80 hours of a qualified job-training or educational program, they can only receive food stamp benefits for three months out of every three years.

The federal government suspended the work requirements on those food stamp recipients nationwide in 2009, when jobs disappeared and unemployment rates shot up during the recession. Over time, as their economies have improved, states have had to reinstate the work requirements.

Now, all but seven states — California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, Rhode Island and South Carolina — and the District of Columbia have work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents in at least part of the state. For work requirements to be waived, unemployment must be higher than 10 percent, or states must prove a lack of jobs.

About 1 in 10 food stamp recipients, or about 4.7 million, fall into the category of being able to work and having no dependent children, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, better known as food stamps. On average, their households receive about $191 a month in food stamp benefits.

They are poor, with an average household income of about $3,768 a year. And they are uneducated — 1 in 4 didn’t graduate high school, and 2 in 4 only earned a high school diploma, according to a January report by the CBPP.

The federal government offers more than $90 million a year for employment and training programs, and requires states to offer them to this population.

But the programs can be as basic or comprehensive as the state wants — from offering advice on r?sum?s and job searching, to providing individualized case management that matches a person with a relevant job skills training program. USDA strongly encourages states to move toward the latter.

If any state offers a model for providing education and job skills to this population, it may be Washington.

The state’s program started small in 2005, in one community center serving just its immediate area, and now serves the entire state in all community colleges and 29 community-based organizations, said David Kaz, director of policy and communications at the nonprofit Seattle Jobs Initiative.

With work requirements back in place in Seattle and surrounding areas starting this month, Kaz said the programs — which include job search instruction, job training, GED prep, English language classes, vocational education and job retention services — should have the capacity to serve anyone who needs it.

Washington is one of a few states that make use of federal matching funds available for establishing programs in community colleges or in contracting with nonprofits to provide job skills and training.

One nonprofit, FareStart, offers a 16-week, hands-on culinary and life skills training program that prepares students to work in the food services industry. The program has more than doubled with the state funding, now serving about 300 people each year, according to Molly Hancock, vice president of programs.

Of the people who enroll, 55 percent graduate, and of those who graduate, 93 percent find jobs within three months, Hancock said.

State data show that, overall, about 70 percent of people who use the state’s programs become employed, Kaz said.