Washington State Knows How to Get People Off Public Assistance and Into Jobs. Will Congress Pay Attention?

It’s hard enough for any specific anti-poverty policy to achieve its mission, let alone work in tandem with other policies to tackle a problem that tends to be complex and entrenched. That's why Washington State’s food stamp program is remarkable, and a candidate for national expansion, if only Congress could agree not to slash SNAP funds in the latest iteration of the Farm Bill. 

The Basic Food Employment and Training Program combines food assistance and job assistance. According to a recent article in The Seattle Times, it has allowed nearly 45,000 Washington State residents to move from collecting public assistance to collecting a paycheck.

The program is incredibly comprehensive. In addition to food assistance, Job seekers are guided through selections for colleges and courses, receive bus tickets and gas vouchers and child care at little or no cost.

The state’s social service agencies contract with community colleges, technical schools, and non-profit organizations like the YMCA to help steer participants into promising job fields. Most of the participants receive education or vocational training, while 20 percent need help only with job hunting. Options include a YMCA program that trains participants to be bank tellers, a welding program from a community college, and a culinary training program.

How much does all this cost?  Federal and state governments split the roughly $24 million tab to help Basic Food clients get off assistance last year. Nationally, each person on food stamps gets an average of $133 a month, or $4.45 a day. That’s less than the $150 in maximum monthly subsidy for transportation alone offered to Basic Food participants. Taxpayers also pick up full tuition and fees. For a two-year culinary program, that can run to more than $15,000.

It might seem steep at first, but the results unfold over a few years, and often positively. The training is effective enough to land participants jobs that allow them to get off public assistance. According to data from a state analysis of the program released in October 2012, of 20,000 people who passed through the program during a four-year span beginning in late 2007 over half of them were still employed following the job training, earning between $10 to $11 an hour, just above the state minimum wage of $9.19.

Most importantly, as the stories in the article show, they get off public assistance. Seattle resident Dede O'Loughlin, quoted in the article, was able to get off food stamps after about two years following a job training program in medical information technology. 

These results were successful enough for a Washington congresswoman, Suzan Delbene (D-WA), to include a provision in the latest Farm Bill that would invest $30 million for a three-year pilot effort to “reduce dependency and increase work effort,” expanding Washington State’s program to see if could be scaled up, and if the results could be replicated elsewhere.

It’s small change compared to the rest of SNAP funding in the bill, but the unyielding commitment of many conservative representatives to barely funding social service programs means even the small amount might cause a fight. On May 16th, the House Agriculture Committee voted to cut nearly $4 billion per year from SNAP funding over the next ten years. 

The House and Senate continue to fight over how to balance the impending SNAP cuts with the so far unharmed crop subsidies, which need a lot less help than pilot programs to help the poor. Opportunities to test and expand innovative programs are increasingly rare. Let's hope more states can experience what Washington started. 

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