By: Janetta Deppa, Senior Associate, ICF

Janetta Deppa is a Senior Associate at ICF, where she works on projects encompassing workforce development and income support for tribal communities, transitioning service members, and low-income populations.

The views expressed in In Focus are exclusively those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of their employers or clients. References to materials or services in the public domain do not imply endorsement from those entities.

While employment is the most obvious method for affording basic living expenses, it’s increasingly becoming apparent that the quality of employment is a huge factor determining whether individuals, and families, can achieve self-sufficiency. SNAP Education and Training addresses this concern by providing support services intended to move individuals out from underemployment.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — previously known as the Food Stamp Program — represents the largest hunger safety net in the United States. For over fifty years, it has provided nutrition assistance to millions of low-income individuals and families. Able-bodied individuals without dependents – approximately 16 percent of SNAP recipients – are required to work 80 hours a month or enroll in workforce training. Any person who does not fulfill this requirement is limited to three months of SNAP benefits within a three-year period. In the 1980s, when Congress added work requirements to SNAP, it was believed incentivizing participants to work would pave a path towards self-sufficiency, and off benefits. This belief continues today, most recently represented by the updated Farm Bill, which requires stricter work requirements on SNAP beneficiaries.

Middle-skill jobs – defined as those requiring more than a high school degree, but less than a bachelor’s degree – currently make up the largest share of the labor market. Despite this, a 2014 study found that only 20% of SNAP households had at least one person with education beyond high school. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) acknowledges the need for job and skills training to help individuals find more meaningful opportunities at employment. Although a separate program, SNAP E&T works with SNAP recipients to combine education, training, and support services with food security. Services can include individualized participant employment assessments, interview practice, and basic and vocational skills training. Depending on your state, it can even cover childcare and transportation costs associated with training programs. States are required to provide E&T programs to SNAP recipients, but are given discretion in the types of programs they provide, as well as whether programs are mandatory or voluntary.

A USDA review of best practices for SNAP E&T programs in four states found:

  • Career pathways coaching provides participants individualized help matching their interests and skills to available jobs, while working to overcome barriers.
  • Developing skills linked to labor market demands prepares individuals with skills relevant to local jobs and industry.
  • Enrolling participants in local colleges and training provides academic credits and certifications relevant for in-demand industries.

Programs succeeded when states partnered with local actors – including community colleges, state workforce development programs, and community-based organizations – who understand the local economy and skills needed for employment. While SNAP E&T programs help to pave the way forward to individual self-sufficiency, it also benefits employers by matching new workers to specific skillsets and expertise –bolstering both sides of the economy.

In Maryland, the minimum wage is $9.25 an hour. Picture yourself as a single working parent who supports one child. Working a full-time, minimum wage job still is insufficient to adequately feed yourself and your child – and so you remain on SNAP benefits for basic nutrition. Or, pretend you’re a middle-aged man who works part-time as a driver. You meet the minimum work requirements of 80 hours a month, but finding a full-time, well-paying job is difficult with just a high school degree. You’d like to become a technician, but don’t have the money to invest in the training this takes. For both scenarios, your earnings still fall under the threshold defining you as food insecure – it’s clear employment alone is insufficient.

Having the option to participate in employment counselling that’s personalized to your skills and local industries, to attend free vocational classes, to have childcare paid for while you’re in training, or even to practice mock interviews can all serve as catalysts to a better paid, more meaningful job.  Getting individuals out of underemployment is incredibly important, and exemplifies SNAP E&T as a powerful tool in the drive towards self-sufficiency.

Interested in reading more about what my colleagues have to say about workforce readiness programs and skills training? Check out this Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse’s webinar about SNAP’s role promoting economic security. For resources beyond SNAP E&T, read this report about implementation of the Accelerating Connections for Employment (ACE) in four states, and this webinar discussing providing employment opportunities for low-income women with criminal backgrounds from the Office of Family Assistance’s Peer TA Network.