Wrapping up National Skills Coalition’s First Supportive Service Academy

By Michael Richardson, Kate Kinder, August 12, 2021

Earlier this year, NSC wrapped up its first Supportive Service Academy with participation from five states: Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Oregon. As a part of the Academy, state teams worked to advance state policies to expand access to supportive services so that people with lower incomes can complete education and training programs. Along with ongoing support from NSC, these state teams convened virtually throughout the year to work together to learn from subject matter experts and participated in peer-to-peer learning. Although COVID-19 shifted how many of these states originally planned to move forward with their efforts, they readjusted and had many successes along the course of the academy. Here is a brief overview of what these states were able to accomplish:

  • Oregon’s Pathways to Opportunity Coalition celebrated the passage of Oregon HB 2835. Known as the Benefits Navigator Bill, HB 2835 allocates $5 million in state funding so that every community college and public university will have a Benefits Navigator position to help students access SNAP food benefits, STEP (SNAP Employment & Training program), housing assistance, and other basic needs resources. Coalition leaders from Oregon’s community colleges, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, Oregon Food Bank, and the Oregon Student Association also centered student and worker voices in the policy development and design. They ensured this would continue through implementation by including requirements in the bill for students to be involved in the program design.

Students have been integral in advocating for the bill: testifying, meeting with legislators, and sharing their insights on the All In: Student Pathways Forward Podcast. Dray Aguirre, a Central Oregon Community College student shared, “I am grateful to have provided testimony in support of HB 2835. I know from my own experience that providing students with access to a full-time benefits navigator that would help direct students to services and programs, will greatly improve our success in school, and provide us with peace of mind so that we can achieve our goals of graduating.”

  • The Illinois team successfully advocated with two state agencies and their Governor’s office to launch two barrier reduction funds. First, they worked with the Illinois Department of Human Services to establish a Barrier Reduction Fund Pilot Program, which dedicated $2 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funding. The funds are administered through the IL Association of Community Action Agencies (IACAA) and cover emergency needs of job seekers seeking to meet an employment goal. The pilot began in Fiscal year 2021 and has been approved to continue in fiscal year 2022. Additionally, the team advocated with the Governor’s office and state legislator to allocate American Rescue Plan Act funds to a new barrier reduction fund administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development. This Barrier Reduction Fund is attached to newly revived state-funded job training grant program called the Job Training and Economic Development Grant program (JTED), which was allocated $50 million. The Barrier Reduction Fund will be accessible as an additional line item to JTED grants, or to any job training program grant recipient. The funds can be used to cover the emergency needs of program participants.

Longer term, they have taken the initial steps toward building a legislative campaign to establish a publicly funded State Barrier Reduction Fund. They also drafted and conducted a supportive services survey of community- based workforce service providers where they will be summarizing the results into a report that can be shared with funders, policymakers, and practitioners with recommendations for how to improve supportive services and barrier reduction policy and resources to better support marginalized job seekers.

  • The Louisiana team successfully advocated to transition the Department of Children and Family Services’ SNAP E&T programming from a model that was primarily mandatory and limited to 5 of the state’s 64 parishes, to a model that is entirely voluntary and without geographic limitations. This change eliminated a significant source of SNAP sanctions that cut mandatory E&T participants off from food assistance and from the possibility of receiving additional E&T-funded supportive services. They executed a data sharing agreement to identify students eligible for supportive services through SNAP E&T to better connect those students with important resources to help them meet their basic needs while pursuing a degree or credential. The Louisiana team also conducted a focus group with allied health students from Baton Rouge community college with the goal of building the public case for the importance of robust supportive services for participants in career training programs. They plan to publish a report highlighting findings from that focus group.
  • The Ohio team focused their efforts on Ohio’s significant digital divide and engaged with Advocates for Ohio’s Future in support of their work on a broadband expansion bill for the state. They achieved a major victory when the House and Senate committee added $250 million to expand broadband access to their state budget. Additionally, the Ohio team will be advocating for a flexible supportive services fund and will be targeting new and existing sources for its development over the next biennium.
  • The Mississippi team supported legislation and developed a policy agenda with specific, actionable recommendations to share with legislators and agency officials. These recommendations include
    1. Establishing an Emergency Supportive Services Fund that could be available to community-based organizations and workforce training providers,
    2. Advancing House Bill 17, the MS Child Care for Working Families Study Committee, that would potentially create systems alignment around childcare and would task a committee with identifying cross-sector/agency revenue that can couple supportive services and training. House Bill 17 will likely be reintroduced during the 2022 session where they will continue to advocate and support their advancement.
    3. Amending the MS Department of Human Services policy to minimize sanctions from critical human services for not meeting arbitrary work requirements and to remove policies that obstruct access to child care assistance as a work support. The team’s recommendation to increase access to child care assistance by removing an obstructive policy was supported through MS House Bill 65. The bill will likely be reintroduced during the 2022 session where they will continue to advocate and support its advancement