Maryland expands food stamp program after lost federal money

March 02, 2016

Maryland is expanding a work-training program tied to food stamps after the state returned hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money that could have been used to help low-income residents find jobs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is set to announce on Wednesday that Maryland is one of 10 states that will take part in a program called SNAP to Skills that is intended to bolster workforce training tied to the food stamp program.

Maryland, along with about half of states, has failed to spend all of the money it receives from the federal government for that training effort. In 2014, the state spent $800,000 of a $1.3 million grant to help people on food stamps prepare for the job market. The unused money is returned to Washington and redistributed to other states.

Federal officials were unable to provide historic data on state spending in the training program, or provide information on other states.

Maryland is "leaving money on the table to make the connection between jobs and job seekers," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in an interview. "We want them, and we want other states, to do a better job."

Roughly one-fifth of households in Maryland — and about 781,000 individuals — rely on food stamps, which is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Washington spent $1.1 billion on the program in Maryland last year.

Congress has required states to provide job training for food stamp beneficiaries since the 1980s, though states have taken different approaches on how to reach that goal — and some have been more comprehensive than others.

"Some states use their federal funding to operate strong skills-building programs, but others simply require job search or workfare and terminate people from food assistance if they are unable to comply," said Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Several experts said Maryland appears to have a more robust program than others, even though it did not use all of its federal money.

As part of the welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, many working-age SNAP recipients without children were required to be cut off the program after three months if they were not employed or enrolled in a job training program.

While that requirement was waived in many parts of the country during the recession, they are now coming back into force as the economy improves. Maryland's statewide waiver ended in January, though Baltimore City and 10 counties continue to be exempted from the requirements.

Because the waivers are beginning to expire — and that is threatening benefits for some beneficiaries — states like Maryland are working to boost their job training programs.

Officials at the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which administers the program, declined an interview request to discuss the state's effort, or the USDA's announcement.

Maryland sought USDA's help to expand the program, and a spokeswoman for the state department said in a statement that Gov. Larry Hogan's administration was selected because of its commitment and interest in doing so.

The "administration is committed to ensuring programs maximize the use of resources to provide high quality programs and positive outcomes for Maryland residents in need," DHR spokeswoman Katherine Morris said in a statement that did not directly address the money the federal grant money the state has not spent in the past.

"SNAP to Skills will help recipients gain the skills they need to prepare for and secure solid employment that can reduce their need for" assistance, she said.

In addition to Maryland, the USDA will announce nine other states are taking part in the effort to bolster their workforce training: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Congressional Republicans were critical of state training efforts when the food stamp program was reauthorized under the 2014 farm bill. That criticism stemmed in part from an Government Accountability Office audit in 2011 that found states were not adequately measuring progress of beneficiaries enrolled in the training.

Advocates say that if the effort to expand workforce training is successful it will have a tangible impact in people's lives.

"Today's job market really requires skills beyond a high school degree," said Brooke DeRenzis, a senior state policy analyst at the Washington-based National Skills Coalition SNAP. The education and training programs "help people build their skills…that lead to family-supporting careers."