Why the Farm Bill Matters to Skills Advocates

By Kate Kinder, Katie Spiker, August 23, 2023

With the 2023 Farm Bill Reauthorization underway, there is an opportunity to streamline access to essential SNAP food benefits and strengthen SNAP Employment and Training programs.


A small town, where the shuttered logging industry looms large.

A city with increasingly untenable costs of living.

A rural and remote, tightknit, agricultural town.

The places James, Shalease, and Lynne call home are unique, yet they’re reminiscent of cities and towns scattered across the country. The ways they connected to training varied, too – following up with a referral from a Vocational Rehabilitation office, taking a suggestion from a Head Start teacher, listening to a recommendation upon becoming a foster parent. James, Shalease and Lynne lead complex, full lives. They have extensive work histories, are parents of grown children and little ones alike, care deeply about their families and are engaged in their communities. For all three, accessing public benefits and postsecondary education programs at their local community colleges improved their wellbeing and created a new trajectory for their lives.

Their stories illustrate why access to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) food benefits and high-quality SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) programs are essential for building a thriving and equitable workforce and economy. They also speak to what so many in Congress, the media, and the public get wrong.

Shalease explained, “I was working as a caregiver, but I wasn’t making enough to feed my family. I accessed SNAP because it was a necessity. You already feel shame that you can’t feed your family. Then, people are looking at you like you don’t want to work or that you’re lazy. It’s not the case. There are plenty of families out there that are working every day, and still can’t afford to feed their kids.” Lynne agrees, saying, “I had no choice but to ask for help. I was ashamed. But, I needed to feed my children.”

James, whose children are grown and out of the house, felt the same stigma and frustration. “I lost my job due to an accident. I was trying to get jobs, but because of my physical disability, because of my age, I was getting turned down. In the small community that I was in, jobs are even more limited. People were like, ‘if you got an education we could hire you’.”

Lack of desire to work was not the issue. James, Shalease, and Lynne all emphasized that they needed better jobs and wages—and access to the education, training, and credentials that would get them there. Fortunately, all three connected with high-quality SNAP Employment and Training programs available at their local community colleges that offered GED programs, Career Technical Education, support services, and navigators to support their success. As Lynne explained, without her GED or a college credential, all it took was “one shoe to drop and then you have no job and no education, and have to return to benefits. And, the [sense of] shame. You get caught in the cycle. Education stops the cycle and has changed everything.”

With the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization before Congress this year, there is much at stake for our nation’s workers, businesses, and economy. At the very heart of the debate is whether provisions in the Farm Bill expand people’s access to essential food benefits and high-quality programs that create opportunity and economic stability for people like James, Lynne and Shalease, and the millions of other adults and families in parallel circumstances. On the flip side, Congress is also considering expanding work requirements and enacting draconian measures that would increase hunger and limit the resources available to states to offer high-quality programs and pathways into education, training, and good jobs that move people off of benefits. In this debate, much hangs in the balance for millions of our nation’s children, seniors, Veterans, students, and workers — our neighbors, family members, customers, caregivers, and friends. Given the Farm Bill’s reach, with levers that cut across human service, higher education, workforce, anti-poverty, and job quality issues, it is critical that skills advocates stay informed and ready to take action to ensure we invest in opportunity.

The Farm Bill’s History

First passed in 1933, the Farm Bill legislates an array of agricultural and food programs. This federal policy supports farms and farmers, funds commodities and conservation programs, and shapes agricultural trade. It also contains provisions that govern our nation’s nutrition and anti-hunger programs, including WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infant and Children) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Established in 1964, with the Food Stamp Act, SNAP is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program. SNAP benefits lead to greater food security for millions of families across the country. SNAP reached over 40 million people in 2021, with one in eight people accessing benefits nationally and up to one in four in some states. Not only does SNAP provide key food benefits for households with low incomes, it also benefits the economy. For every $1 invested in the SNAP program, $1.50 to $2.00 is put back into the economy, benefitting not only the families accessing SNAP, but small businesses, local and state economies. The Farm Bill supports and touches every community in our country – rural and urban regions as well as Tribal nations. It benefits farmers, conservationists, students, infants and children, Veterans, Seniors, people experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities, and working people at all stages in their careers.

The SNAP program has long included provisions to connect people with employment services, starting with the Food and Agricultural Act of 1977 and the Food Stamp Act of 1985 that required all states to operate SNAP Employment and Training programs. SNAP Employment and Training programs are intended to connect recipients of SNAP with opportunities to gain skills and access services that create career pathways and lead to sustainable employment that can end the need for SNAP benefit access. Since most recipients of SNAP who can work already do, SNAP Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) programs can be a critical strategy to connect people to high-quality education and training and support services that result in quality credentials and better jobs with family-sustaining wages. With the majority of jobs requiring some post-secondary education, SNAP E&T’s focus on boosting skills and educational attainment helps to close opportunity gaps and ensure people have the chance to thrive in today’s economy. Increased educational attainment also improves wages, reduces unemployment, and improves health outcomes — all of which are critical to reducing and ending the need for SNAP and other public benefit access.

The Opportunity Before Us: Strengthening the Farm Bill’s Impact

With a longstanding history of reducing hunger and providing connections to employment and training services, the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization offers an opportunity to strengthen what works for people and families, local employers, and our economy. There is a chance to support common sense strategies that benefit our communities collectively, and scale state solutions that improve the impact of federal and state investments.

What Works

  • Seamless access to SNAP food benefits reduces hunger and supports collective wellbeing.
    • People need access to food benefits while they work, pursue education and training, and/or complete programs that create career pathways and offer economic stability. States need modernized and streamlined processes that reduce bureaucracy and administrative costs, so they can focus on serving people.
  • High-quality SNAP Employment and Training programs build skills and create career pathways that offer people economic stability and mobility.
    • People need access to high-quality programs that offer education and training, credentials that lead to good jobs, and services that improve their lives and create economic stability to transition off of SNAP benefits. States need legislation that strengthens partnerships and system capacity, increases data infrastructures to assess and scale what works, and the flexibility to leverage SNAP E&T to fill the programmatic and service gaps that are not covered by other federal and state workforce, human service, adult and higher education funding streams.

What Does Not Work

Work requirements don’t work. Broadly speaking, work requirements add additional stipulations and time limits on top of existing SNAP eligibility criteria.

  • Work requirements don’t help people or business.
    • Over and over, the research has shown that work requirements do not work to improve the wellbeing of families, or improve employment and earnings outcomes. Work requirements aren’t effective at connecting people to family-supporting jobs or lifting them out of poverty. Instead, they can be counterproductive and keep people stuck in low-wage jobs that prolongs reliance on benefits and makes it more difficult for workers to build the skills and earn the credentials that can help them compete in today’s economy.
    • There’s also no evidence that work requirements help meet the workforce needs of employers, especially as the digital and technical skills required evolve over time.
  • Work requirements create unnecessary red tape.

    • Work requirements increase government bureaucracy and red tape, and are costly to administer. They force states to focus on compliance, diverting limited funding towards tracking down paperwork and monitoring hours of participation, instead of investing in an array of services that build skills, increase credential completion, and lead to more stable careers that also meet the needs of employers who are looking for workers with industry-specific skills and credentials.
    • For people to receive SNAP food benefits—sometimes as little as $23 a month—they would have to provide detailed documentation, verification, and tracking of their hours on the job or engaged in approved activities each week, or prove they are experiencing homelessness or other barriers to employment. A reduction in work hours, a misplaced log, or not getting the right signatures on a form could result in someone losing SNAP food benefits for three years.
    • Rather than increasing employment outcomes and economic stability, work requirements increase hunger by pushing people off of benefits and taking away access to food, disproportionately targeting and harming Black and Latinx workers.
  • They further a harmful narrative about working people.

    • The arguments insupport of work requirements fail to acknowledge that most people who are accessing SNAP benefits and can work, already do. Instead, the pro-work requirement rhetoric often draws on on racist and sexist tropes that have been used to tear away at the nation’s social safety net for over 40 years. Despite being patently untrue, these stereotypes continue to dominate public and political discourse and inaccurately blame people for the faults of systems. Underpinning these work requirements is the false premise that poverty, economic instability, and food insecurity are the results of individual choices and because people don’t want to and are not working. These pernicious narratives deny the root cause and ignore the fact that structural barriers—racism, sexism, rural disinvestment, and policies that have restricted access to education, capital, and good jobs—are to blame. Not people, and not families.


Strengthening What Works: 2023 Farm Bill Recommendations

To strengthen what works to reduce hunger and connect more people to high-quality education and training, support services, and opportunities to build the skills and earn the credentials that lead to good jobs with sustainable wages that end benefit access, Congress should:

1) Modernize SNAP eligibility requirements and processes to make it easier for people to access SNAP benefits and more efficient for states to run the programs

Simplify Student Eligibility: Students with low incomes, who meet SNAP eligibility criteria, are still subjected to additional requirements that leaves too many students without critical food benefits. Many students can’t access essential benefits as they pursue postsecondary credentials that will result in increased employment, wages, and economic stability. To end this counterproductive policy quagmire, Congress should support and encourage the completion of postsecondary credentials and:

  • Allow enrollment in public community and technical college programs;
  • A $0 EFC—Expected Family Contribution as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or;
  • Eligibility for federal or state work study programs to meet SNAP student eligibility requirements.

Reduce Administrative Burdens and Modernize Processes: The processes for accessing SNAP and SNAP E&T services are administratively burdensome for states and create obstacles for people. To improve the program, Congress should strengthen and clarify states’ ability to:

  • Modernize and streamline application and notification processes, protecting broad-based categorical eligibility and state waivers that improve SNAP benefit access.
  • Foster coordination across means-tested public benefit, financial aid, and public workforce programs by encouraging the alignment of eligibility criteria across programs and increasing requirements for interagency collaboration and issuance of state guidance.
  • Allow states to determine which workers are best suited to assess participant needs and make referrals into SNAP E&T programs, to ensure efficiency and a human-centered approach.

Encourage Employment and Stabilization: Benefit cliffs and food insecurity make it difficult for people seeking stable employment and economic stability. To reduce obstacles, Congress should:

  • Eliminate state options to restrict access to SNAP benefits for returning citizens with drug-felony convictions.
  • Modernize SNAP eligibility guidelines, increasing income deductions and resource limits to reflect the costs facing today’s families, and disregarding income earned while completing Employment and Training programs to offer transitional SNAP benefits that improve employment outcomes and job retention.
2) Support states to expand high-quality SNAP E&T programs that create career pathways through education and training programs that build skills, increase credential attainment, integrate work-based learning, and connect people to quality jobs with family-sustaining wages that offer economic mobility

Focus on Impact, Not Compliance: Mandatory programs, work requirements, and time limits are administratively burdensome for state agencies and cumbersome for people. They are costly to administer and funnel limited resources towards compliance and tracking hours of engagement instead of high-quality programming. To focus on impact, Congress should:

  • Eliminate time limits and work requirements, moving SNAP E&T to a voluntary program to empower states to focus on increasing engagement in an array of high-quality education and training, case management, and supportive services that improve employment opportunities, wage outcomes, and economic stability.
  • Make permanent state waiver options and expand mechanisms for innovation through demonstration projects that will additionally modernize the program to center people and boost impact.

Improve Outcomes: Too often, SNAP E&T programs have been underfunded and have defaulted to workfare or job search services that do not increase economic stability and keep people trapped in low wage work. To improve outcomes, Congress should:

  • Strengthen the Farm Bill’s employment and training program definitions, emphasizing the goal of creating career pathways and requiring states to offer and prioritize high-quality education and training programs that lead to postsecondary credentials of value and quality jobs, including community college, work-based learning, and apprenticeship programs.
  • Aid this transition by increasing 100% funding earmarked for the development and administration of third-party partnerships, and developing a reimbursable SNAP 50/50 establishment fund to prioritize support for community college intermediaries and programs at rural, Tribal, Historically Black, smaller colleges, and trusted community-based organizations.
  • Authorize and fund technical assistance necessary to scale and replicate what works.

Increase Program Engagement and Completion: Participants need access to more than just high-quality education and training. People need resources to cover the costs of transportation, tools, books, childcare, industry-recognized credentials, and other expenses required to complete training and secure good jobs. Effective case management and career coaching services also improve outcomes. To increase program engagement and completion, Congress should:

  • Increase the 100% funding available to third-party providers to cover case management and supportive services costs.
  • Clarify and strengthen states’ ability to offer robust participant reimbursements that are reasonable and necessary for program engagement and completion, while recognizing inflation, rising costs, and the expanded digital technology and resource needs.
  • Disregard income and extend job retention services to 180 days, to further improve employment outcomes. Ending this benefit cliff will ensure people have the resources and support they need to complete their programs, obtain and maintain sustainable employment to become economically secure and end benefit access.

Build Partnerships and System Capacity: Frequently, workforce programs are siloed and confusing for people to navigate. Congress should protect SNAP E&T’s flexibility, efficacy, and ability to respond to those most in need of employment and training services by empowering states to create human-centered programs that fill workforce development service gaps. To achieve this, Congress can:

  • Refine the state planning process to allow states and third-party providers to tailor SNAP E&T programs and services to meet the needs of people, communities, and employers, while bolstering requirements that programs focus on improving education, employment, and earning outcomes.
  • Require the alignment and coordination amongst SNAP E&T, postsecondary institutions, community-based organizations, employers, and workforce partners through state WIOA, TANF, and community and technical college planning efforts, while maintaining states’ flexibility and oversight of this process.

Improve Data Systems and Infrastructures: Obstacles with data sharing across human service, workforce, higher educaiton, and community-based providers can make it challenging to assess the longitudinal impact of SNAP E&T and how the program benefits people, communities, and states. To improve the SNAP E&T data ecosystem, Congress should:

  • Authorize and fund SNAP E&T technical assistance, research, and data grants that can improve a state’s data infrastructure, data systems, and ability to increase data sharing and analysis of efficacy and equity.
  • Support and encourage states to disaggregate data by populations, provider, and activity to evaluate longitudinal outcomes and impact of SNAP access and SNAP E&T engagement, including program quality, credential completion, educational attainment, career pathways, wage gains, and public cost benefit analyses.

Investment in Opportunity

As with all policy recommendations, it’s important to remember that policies are ultimately about people. As James, Shalease, and Lynne illustrate, people accessing SNAP benefits are already working and seeking better opportunities. People want work that can provide for themselves and their family, and access to programs that increase their economic stability. They should not have to waste their time filling out more paperwork or logs detailing every hour of their work week (as work requirements mandate) in order to have food on the table. People want access to high-quality education and training so they can secure quality jobs and earn enough to cover the rising costs of living. They need safe and affordable childcare, and reliable transportation to get to work. People accessing SNAP don’t need policymakers to create programs that add arcane requirements that get them no further than when they started, and in some cases, leave them worse off. People want policymakers to find solutions.

Until getting connected to the SNAP E&T program – the education and training offered at their community college, support services to help with the costs of transportation, books, and tuition, and the coaching that propelled their success – James, Lynne, and Shalease each spoke of the experience of feeling trapped in a “cycle” or “loop of failure” where it felt impossible to get ahead. It should not be happenstance that the state you live in or the SNAP E&T programs offered generates opportunity and economic stability. In the same way that millions of students access the Pell grant, or that veterans access the GI Bill, or that laid off workers tap into Trade Act funding and unemployment benefits, SNAP and SNAP E&T are benefits people should be able to access seamlessly and without shame. As Shalease says, people are “just trying to get a foot up, to further themselves” so they can take care of their family and give back to their communities.

As the Farm Bill takes shape, advocates can remind policymakers that our public policies and investments must serve people and dismantle systemic obstacles to opportunity, not construct barriers to economic stability and family wellbeing. Let’s strengthen and invest in what works to ensure people have access to the supports they need, opportunities to build skills and earn credentials, and pathways into good jobs that offer economic security. Let’s ensure the Farm Bill works for families, farmers, workers, students, employers, and communities across our nation.