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Want Food Stamps? You Should Have to Look For Work

Two fiscal cliffs ago, the 2008 Farm Bill was extended for a year to avoid inflated milk prices with the expiration of the Milk Income Loss Contract Program. Two extensions later, the House and the Senate are considering extending the program once again.

At the crux of the riff is the future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the program formerly known as food stamps. While the Senate has proposed to cut as much as $24 billion from the Farm Bill over the next decade, including $3 billion from SNAP, the House would not be outdone. The House speaker proposed a whopping $40 billion in cuts to the Farm Bill and $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade.

Unfortunately, the elementary-school art class competition over who can cut through the larger stack of papers with their scissors is straw manning a more valuable critique that needs to be made. What the public needs to pay attention to is the content of our current SNAP policies and the proposed amendments, not the cuts in and of themselves. More specifically, we need to get serious about discussing the SNAP E&T (Employment and Training) program. The SNAP E&T program, which theoretically requires SNAP households to provide proof that they are seeking employment and pursued the first reasonable job offer, must be fortified. As our public officials continue to sway back and forth over the size of the Farm Bill, citizens must voice their support for programs that focus on solutions to hunger.

Between jobs, education, and communal support, the SNAP E&T programs can play an active role in reducing hunger and supporting employment for food-insecure households. This includes a requirement that all 52 U.S. territories that utilize the program (the 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico) make the work requirements necessary for SNAP households that do not receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or Unemployment Insurance (since both programs already have work requirements and time limits on receiving benefits). In conjunction with work requirements, the Farm Bill must also support grant opportunities for employers to create job training and programs for SNAP E&T enrollees.

As it stands, the SNAP E&T program is toothless. In New York state the program is mandatory for most able-bodied adults without dependents, or recipients between the ages of 18 and 59 who are not taking care of a child under the age of six or an incapacitated adult 35 hours per week. In order to meet the SNAP E&T work requirement, you must first provide proof that you applied for 15 jobs (no more than five online), attend an initial evaluation with your local department of social services (LDSS) employment agency, and eventually participate in a work program, which includes job fairs, GED programs, and job training programs. The LDSS cannot require clients to partake in more than 120 hours of employment and training activities in a month. Households that fail to meet the work requirements or refuse employment after the first three months of their SNAP benefits are subject to have their SNAP suspended and required to reapply after a 12-month period.

On paper, it sounds like the number of SNAP recipients should plummet as more people fulfill the SNAP E&T requirement. But “requirement” is in the hands of the courts. A 2012 case in New York state pretty much made the SNAP E&T program null and void by granting waivers for just about anyone who can articulate why they didn’t take a job offer or don’t feel obligated to apply for 15 jobs a month. The argument for the recent decision was that no municipality has the right to deny anyone nutrition assistance. As someone who works firsthand with the community as well as LDSS, I have witnessed how the recent court decision has left county officials with their hands tied. County reps are condemned if they press clients to aggressively seek employment and just as condemned if they don’t.

This past Wednesday, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) proposed making the work requirements of SNAP E&T an option for individual states to choose to implement. As a moderate who leans left, and commits his life to providing meal access to households that face low food security (the Bush administration’s fancy word for hunger), I am willing to argue that Southerland’s proposal is just shy of what needs to happen. If we want to see a more effective public welfare system, then it is time to make SNAP E&T work requirements a requirement. This is not an argument over conservatives wagging their fingers and demanding people get themselves out of their own situation, nor is it a platform for liberals to self-righteously say that they’re the last hope for human compassion. What this is is a common-sense, first-step approach to policy. Other issues — like whether or not employment is enough when working on a full-time minimum wage salary will still leave you within 135% of the federal poverty line — are intuitive second steps that can only be addressed when we require citizens to seek employment first.

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