SNAP E&T Can Close Opportunity Gaps and Help Build an Inclusive Economy  

By Kate Kinder, August 04, 2022

NSC to work with five states to build or expand Career Pathways SNAP E&T programs.

Communities and workers across the nation continue to grapple with the impacts of an uneven economic recovery. Just as America’s workers and families have not been impacted equally by the pandemic, Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, immigrants, people without a college degree, workers in low-wage jobs, and rural communities continue to face systemic barriers to good jobs and economic mobility in the recovery.

To create an equitable and inclusive economy, National Skills Coalition calls for a bold slate of federal and state policies to invest in today’s students, workers, businesses, and communities. Informed by our network, NSC’s Making College Work, Implementing an Inclusive Economic Recovery, Digital Equity @ Work, People Powered Infrastructure, and Data for an Inclusive Economic Recovery campaigns offer a roadmap for transforming who has access to high-quality education and skills training and quality jobs. While these new policies and investments in workforce, higher education, and human services are long overdue, there is also an opportunity for states to leverage and expand existing policies, programs, and funding streams to move forward a strong skills agenda toward an inclusive economic recovery.

SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) is one such powerful and frequently underutilized program that states can leverage to build career pathways systems that increase postsecondary enrollment and completion, provide supportive services, and connect students to quality jobs that offer economic mobility and meet the needs of local employers. Through partnerships among community colleges, human service agencies, labor agencies, state higher education offices and associations, community-based organizations, adult education providers, and other workforce partners, states are able to harness SNAP E&T to generate a robust funding stream that expands the holistic supports and connections needed for increasing access to high-quality education.

Thanks to the generous support of the Lumina Foundation and ECMC Foundation, National Skills Coalition is working with and providing technical assistance to state teams from Arizona, Connecticut, Michigan, New Mexico, and Virginia to build or expand Career Pathways SNAP E&T programs through their community colleges. These states will be exploring how SNAP E&T can be a powerful equity tool to dismantle systemic disparities, increase access to postsecondary education, and meet the economic and moral imperative of the moment to address the needs of all workers.


The Need for SNAP E&T: Americans Face Resource Gaps because of Systemic Inequities, Not Individual Choices

As a result of staggering wage and wealth disparities and the growing cost of living that has outpaced wages, workers and learners face sizable resource gaps that make it challenging to afford the costs of basic needs like housing, food, childcare, transportation, broadband and technology – let alone the high-quality education programs that would allow them to develop the skills and earn the credentials necessary for good jobs. In the last twenty-five years, there has been little to no progress in closing the gender wage gap, and the Black-white wage gap has widened. According to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women working full-time in 2019 earned just 83.1% of what men earned working full-time, a rate that drops to 77.3% when comparing the wages of part-time workers. Latina women working full-time earned just 58.4% and Black women 63.1% when compared to the median weekly earnings of white men. This growing income inequality perpetuates and widens existing racial wealth gaps created by prevalent and pervasive discriminatory policies that have historically restricted (and continue to restrict) who has access to capital, real estate, home ownership, education and training, and good jobs. In 2019, the Urban Institute found that the net worth of a typical white family was eight times that of a Black family and five times that of Latino families, with great variation based on place. In our nation’s capital, for instance, white households had 81 times the wealth of Black households.

These wage and wealth gaps create even more pressure for American workers, as housing costs have skyrocketed amidst rising inflation, with anywhere from one in five to one in seven renters falling behind on payments. Even when taking into account higher minimum wages in some states and municipalities, it would take 97 hours per week of work for the average worker earning a minimum wage job to afford a 2-bedroom home at fair market value. Adding to issues of housing affordability, over 20 million Americans reported not getting enough to eat during the pandemic. Rates of hunger were much higher, and in some cases double, among Black, Indigenous, Latino, Pacific Islander, and multiracial individuals. For students enrolled in public community and technical colleges, close to two-thirds of students reported experiencing some form of basic need insecurity, with food insecurity topping the list. Nearly one in eight Americans received SNAP food benefits, with nearly two-thirds of these households including families with children. Further stretching the American family, the costs of center-based child care increased 47% during the pandemic, with in-home care increasing by 70%. Far too many workers, students, children, and older adults lack access to the food they need, safe and stable housing, and affordable childcare, making it challenging to enroll and complete postsecondary education and training programs or access quality jobs that offer economic stability and mobility.


Advocates and States Can Help Shift the Narrative Shift to Increase Access to Resources like SNAP E&T

As the imperative for policies and resources to address this astounding need has grown in the wake of the pandemic, so too has the narrative that resource gaps are somehow the result of individual actions and choices versus systemic inequities and policy failures. The data make clear, along with the experiences of millions of families and workers across the country, that these myths of meritocracy are damaging workers, our economy, and the growth and progress of our nation. These resource gaps are not the result of individual choices or lack of hard work, but rather borne out of an inexplicable apathy and failure to enact systemic solutions that take into account root causes and the structural racism and sexism that create opportunity gaps.

Advocates and practitioners can help reduce the stigma and shift the narrative by normalizing public benefit access, and challenging the pernicious racist and sexist stereotypes that too frequently accompany campaigns to divest and restrict access to America’s longstanding human service programs that build collective well-being. Too many workers are going without key resources they need and are eligible for due to shame-inducing tropes, or concern that they are taking resources away from others who need them more. Just as millions of Americans access the Pell grant, the GI Bill, and other means-tested tuition assistance programs, accessing SNAP benefits and SNAP E&T can provide foundational resources that support workers and their families as they develop the skills and earn the postsecondary credentials necessary to move into quality jobs that offer generational pathways out of poverty.

State agencies, advocates, and practitioners can respond and help by sharing state-level disaggregated data and lifting up the voices of students and workers to build awareness of the scale of the issue and elicit policy and programmatic solutions from those impacted. Creating opportunities for policymakers to hear directly from those with lived experience can have a powerful effect on changing the narrative. It is easier to dehumanize and cling to racist and sexist stereotypes perpetuated within the welfare reform and work-first movements when dealing in the abstract or focusing on individual exceptions. It is much more challenging when listening to a community college student describe the challenges of living in her car and juggling school and unstable work, or hearing a father in a small rural town detail how SNAP benefits and SNAP E&T were essential resources that allowed him to feed his family, complete a high-quality education and training program at his local community college, and secure a good job to support his family and contribute to his community. Elevating these experiences can help shift the focus towards systemic solutions, illustrating that the root causes are structural and the responsibility falls on our systems and not on individuals. Worker and student voices highlight for policymakers the collective benefit of supporting the potential and wellbeing of all workers, to build local communities and inclusive economies.

Americans See the Value of Postsecondary Education that Can Be Supported by SNAP E&T

Against the backdrop of these resource gaps, completing high-quality skills training programs and earning postsecondary credentials continues to be one of the best generators of economic mobility, creating pathways into quality jobs while meeting the needs of employers and local businesses. Nationally, over 60.5 million Americans 25 and older need access to post-secondary education and 25.6 million Americans 25 and older are without a high school equivalency–over 86 million adults who need access to high-quality education and career pathways. Numerous studies have also indicated that workers themselves see the value of postsecondary education and want the chance to build new skills and earn quality credentials. A recent Lumina Foundation and Gallup study showed that 94% of students currently enrolled in postsecondary education identified that earning at least one credential beyond high school was important for securing the job they wanted, with 80% of those who never enrolled but were considering college reporting the same.

These workers seek and understand the benefits that postsecondary education and credentials can confer. Research has consistently shown the correlation between educational attainment and higher wages, lifetime earnings, generational wealth, reduced unemployment, and access to quality jobs. SNAP E&T can ensure more workers have the opportunity to complete high-quality skills training and pursue career pathways. While increasing access to high-quality skills training and holistic supports that boost postsecondary credential completion won’t close racial and economic equity gaps as a stand-alone strategy, together they can be a critical lever for change alongside other policies and investments to create an inclusive economic recovery.


SNAP E&T Can Close Opportunity Gaps and Help Build and Inclusive Economy

With affordability and cost continuing to top the list of reasons why adult students do not complete postsecondary education or fail to enroll in the first place, it’s no wonder that community college enrollment has steeply declined during the pandemic, with a 7.8% enrollment drop in Spring 2022 alone, and higher rates among adult students and women. For parenting students, the lack of affordability coupled with insufficient childcare has devastating impacts on enrollment and completion. SNAP E&T offers a flexible funding stream that can address affordability and resource gaps to connect more adults to high-quality postsecondary programs, like apprenticeship, Career Technical Education, and workforce training programs available through community and technical colleges. Along with staff to support workers and students in navigating their career pathway, SNAP E&T can also offer an equitable framework and funding to provide supportive services like childcare, transportation, tools, books, and payments for industry certifications. Addressing affordability gaps reduces the debt burden that prevents many adults, especially students of color, from enrolling and completing college certificates and degrees.

In making these investments, states can and should prioritize high-quality education and training programs that integrate adult education, offer stackable credentials, feature industry partnerships, and create better outcomes for Black workers and other systemically marginalized workers and learners. This career pathways approach to SNAP E&T can also advance economic, racial, and gender equity, through partnerships and a flexible model that can help redress the harm done through educational tracking, occupational segregation, and welfare reform’s work-first approach which generated little economic mobility and instead perpetuated cycles of generational poverty. SNAP E&T can also be a powerful economic driver in a region, in rural and urban communities alike.

Fortunately, many states are already harnessing the potential and power of SNAP E&T to increase postsecondary attainment, address basic needs insecurity, and close opportunity gaps so more workers move into quality jobs and businesses have the workforce they need. States like Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, California, and Louisiana have built SNAP E&T models and partnerships among community and technical colleges and human service partners, with models ready to be replicated and expanded. NSC’s Career Pathways SNAP E&T technical assistance project will lift up and support the scaling of these best practices while developing new and innovative approaches through communities of practice and collaboration among states and NSC’s networks.

Read more about the project here.