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This blog was written in partnership with the American Public Human Services Association.
Earlier this year, Skills State Policy and Advocacy Network (SkillSPAN) and Business Leaders United (BLU) networks shared their key policy priorities which include expanding access to skills training opportunities; ensuring workers have access to wraparound support services; and addressing the digital divide.
States play an essential role in supporting people most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including workers, small business owners, and community colleges. The disparate health and economic outcomes for communities of color across these groups, has illuminated the deep structural barriers that can make achieving economic mobility and sustained health difficult or impossible. As investment decisions are made, federal, state and local leaders have the opportunity to rebuild an economy where everyone can be empowered to equitably participate in and benefit from an inclusive recovery.
This blog is the first in a series that the National Skills Coalition is producing that will dive deeper into policies that states are using to create an inclusive and equitable economic recovery for all workers.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”) is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is one of the nation’s most important safety net programs supporting health and well-being and providing nutritional benefits to low-income families. In 2021, more than 42 million individuals participated in SNAP and about 92 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes at or below the poverty line. Communities of color are at a higher risk of food insecurity and hunger largely because of systemic racism – that is institutional policies and practices that produce disparate results by race. For example, Black communities had the fewest supermarkets and the longest distance to supermarkets compared to White communities. In addition, significant racial disparities in food insecurity which existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic continue to persist. In fact, 21 percent of Black individuals may experience food insecurity in 2021, compared to 11 percent of White individuals. Also, over 80 percent of households with an adult who is neither over 65 nor experiencing a disability has at least one household member working while receiving SNAP benefits.
A large share of people receiving SNAP are potentially eligible for SNAP Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) services. SNAP E&T is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This program was created in 1985 to help people receiving SNAP simultaneously gain access to training and supportive services to enter into the workforce or advance in their careers. Skills are a critical component of economic mobility where many jobs require reskilling and/or upskilling in order to advance in the workforce.
Every state must operate a SNAP E&T program, but states have flexibility to design their SNAP E&T programs — for example, what services to offer, which geographic regions to serve, whether the program is voluntary or mandatory, and how the state sanctions participants for noncompliance. People receiving SNAP may be subject to work requirements, if they are between the ages of 18-59 and able to work. They may also be subject to additional work requirements if they are an able bodied adult with dependents. Participation in SNAP E&T is one way that a person receiving SNAP can meet the general work requirement. SNAP E&T supports a range of employment and training activities for SNAP recipients such as job search, job search training, job retention, work experience or workfare, vocational education, and much more. SNAP E&T can play a vital role in a state’s workforce development system by helping people receiving SNAP move into stable employment with opportunity for advancement, and ultimately achieve economic mobility that allows them to transition off of SNAP.
SNAP E&T agencies can partner with third party providers — community colleges, community-based organizations, and others who use non-federal funds— to provide holistic education, training, and support services to SNAP recipients. These types of partnerships allow SNAP E&T agencies to utilize existing training programs and community supports that have a strong record of preparing individuals with low-incomes for high-quality jobs.
The American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) is supporting agencies by developing and increasing organizational capacity to provide quality, skill based, employer driven employment and training to people receiving SNAP as third-party providers. APHSA, in partnership with the Association of Community College Trustees and the National Community Action Partnership, is providing intensive training and technical assistance to two cohorts comprised of community colleges and community action agencies to increase the capacity of third-party partners. The project will leverage SNAP E&T subject matter experts to provide technical assistance across systems to increase understanding, improve coordination with state and local agencies, and scale E&T partnerships.
Some states are supporting workers’ long-term career pathways by leveraging the expertise and resources of partner organizations to create and expand skill-building opportunities for participants. For example, Oregon’s Department of Human Services has focused on growing SNAP E&T services to expand access to skills training and supportive services available within the state’s workforce development system. The SNAP Training and Employment program (STEP) Community College Consortia in Oregon plays a key role, by ensuring access to adult education and skills training at community colleges across the state. Portland Community College serves as the intermediary, leading this consortia that includes all 17 community colleges. Oregon’s Community College STEP Consortia uses a skills-based approach to support SNAP recipients access education and training programs, advance in their career pathways, and enter careers that offer economic mobility. Oregon achieves this by utilizing a Career Pathway framework that offers individuals short-term, stackable credentials that prepare them for high-quality jobs and allows them to build towards other credentials (i.e., associate degree, bachelor’s degree, etc.). This approach supports individuals’ progression along an education and career pathway, while also ensuring that the individual has access to supportive services such as tuition assistance, digital inclusion, housing, and childcare.
Oregon also connects low-income students to federal, state, and local resources that can help them complete their education and training and move into high-quality good jobs that pay family sustaining wages. Oregon’s consortia brings together community colleges, state agencies, community-based organizations, and others to support this effort in helping individuals gain access to essential training and support services. This type of partnership among different agencies provides Oregon the opportunity to work towards addressing the inequitable distribution of resources within the state and increasing economic mobility for marginalized communities, advancing racial equity, rural opportunity, and economic mobility.
In addition, Oregon recently passed HB 2835, which creates funding at community colleges and public universities for a Benefits Navigator position to help students access SNAP food benefits, SNAP E&T, housing assistance, and other basic needs. The passage of this legislation will better support individuals in accessing and completing skills training and offering the necessary supportive services to help them prepare for the workforce.
Even though we cannot train our way out of an economic crisis, SNAP E&T is a vehicle that can better align the goals and services of providers with one another and with the state to offer participants a seamless continuum of services.
The National Skills Coalition will continue to advance meaningful policy discussion in states to better serve small businesses, workers, community colleges, and communities of color. Stay tuned! As we will be diving deeper into other SkillSPAN and BLU networks key policy priorities in forthcoming blogs.