House Ag subcommittee debates SNAP as pathway from poverty
July 25, 2017
Republicans and Democrats on the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee disagreed this week on whether the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can function as a program to move beneficiaries to skilled, good-paying jobs, but experts agreed that changes would be needed in the program for that to happen.
At a hearing on July 19, House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said in a post-hearing statement getting a steady job is "essential to helping individuals and families rise out of poverty."
"The pathway approaches we discussed today reorient existing education and employment services from disconnected programs to a structure that syncs employer needs with individuals' education, training and employment needs," Thompson added. "As a committee, we are dedicated to exploring ways to couple services with employment and training to ensure work-capable SNAP recipients move to a sustainable point of self-reliance."
"SNAP is an important safety net for America's most vulnerable that can have a transformative impact on individuals trying to rise out of poverty," added House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas. "The pathway approaches discussed today ensure recipients are encouraged to participate and thrive in workforce programs that lead to sustainable labor-force involvement."
House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee ranking member Jim McGovern, D-Mass., emphasized most SNAP beneficiaries are not expected to work or cannot work.
"Yes, we need to figure out ways to help get people to be secure and have a job and we're all for work, but understand one thing: 67 percent of the people on this program are not expected to work or cannot work — they are children, they are senior citizens, they are people who are disabled," McGovern said.
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"I'm tired of the perception that somehow everybody on SNAP is lazy or doesn't know how to work. The fact is the majority of them do work. The question is why do they earn such low wages? Why does work pay so little in this country? Of those who are not working, we need to explore this population."
McGovern pointed out the Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents policy, which limits benefits for individuals between the ages of 18 and 49 who have no disabilities and no people listed as dependents, needs reevaluating because "that population is complicated."
Many people who fall into that population may deal with chronic homelessness and undiagnosed mental illness, among many other predicaments, McGovern said. He inserted into the record a recent report in The Washington Post about a Maine veteran who lost his job due to injury, and therefore lost his SNAP benefits, too.
"If we are talking about how we transition people who can work into the work force, we need to understand you don't do it by cutting the program by $10 billion," McGovern added.
Conservative lawmakers looking to make budget cuts have charged that SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, allows individuals to rely too heavily on the program's benefits and thereby lose the incentive to work and independently support a household.
Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, refuted this assessment at the hearing. Holzer said the lack of access to education and job training is the root of the problem, not ineptitude and laziness. With more opportunities for SNAP recipients to get skilled jobs, the dependence on SNAP and its needed budget will decrease over time, he added.
"More SNAP recipients should have access to such models of education and training, which would benefit themselves and employers seeking skilled workers, reduce SNAP expenditures over time and raise economic productivity," Holzer said in his written testimony. He added there needs to be a partnership between "local or regional employers, a training provider … and an intermediary" to get people working.
Eliyahu Lotzar, a student success coordinator at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y., which trains students for jobs that provide at least a living wage, said, "The recommendation is that this type of employability education, which is based on employer feedback, emphasizes soft skills and connects people with employers, start in high schools."
It's happening slowly; it just needs support in order that more people will be able to feed themselves and their families, and feed themselves well, and do it with a minimum of public assistance."
With additional resources, assessments of worker characteristics could be provided through SNAP agencies or local job centers," Lotzar added. "But the more 'barriers' to work any recipient has — such as very poor skills, limited work experience, physical/mental disabilities or substance abuse — the less likely they are to sustain work experience leading to wage growth over time."
Heather Reynolds, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, said her organization has "shifted from serving families to ending poverty with families," and said the farm bill should change the way it approaches and funds SNAP.
"Reform must focus on shifting to a comprehensive solution for moving people out of poverty," she said.
First, she said, "benefits should not have a sharp cut-off based on earnings at 130 percent of the federal poverty line. Eligibility requirements need to provide a gradual decline in benefits until participants reach a living wage." That way, transitioning into a life without any SNAP will be much more manageable, she said.
And second, she said it's impossible for families to experience upward mobility without intensive case management, which calls for "someone to come alongside a person, understand all their needs and work with them for the long haul until they are out of poverty."
In those proposals, she added "you will not hear from me to invest more. My message today is to invest differently. More Americans will experience income stability if we get these federal programs right."
Witnesses also were wary of what has become known as the "one-size-fits-all" approach to doling out SNAP benefits, which implies uniform provisions meant to encompass the entirety of SNAP recipients.
The witnesses stressed the vast diversity that exists within the SNAP community to means that the one-size-fits-all mentality is irresponsible in ensuring all receive the fullest benefits of SNAP.