Some of North Carolina’s poorest adults, who are already living on the edge, will lose food assistance this year. The reason: the return of a callous time limit on food benefits for nondisabled, childless adults who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).
SNAP is the nation’s first line of defense against hunger but the federal time limit creates a harsh hole in the safety net for more than 100,000 jobless and underemployed adults in North Carolina who are doing their best to find stable work and keep food on the table. These adults will lose benefits after three months if they can’t find a job or job-training opportunity for 20 hours per week or meet certain exemptions.
And there’s the rub—the tight labor market and too few job-training slots in North Carolina make it very difficult for many of these folks to meet the requirements. In most counties, there are more people looking for work than job openings. That’s to say there are still not enough jobs available for everyone who wants to work nearly seven years into the economic recovery. Plus, job opportunities are especially limited for this particular group that tends to need retraining, industry credentials, or development of basic job skills like reading and writing.
That’s why job training programs are so crucial for these low-skilled, low-income adults. Some states pledge to offer a job training opportunity to every adult subject to the time limit, with the goal of helping them secure full-time jobs that pay enough to afford the basics. Unfortunately, Governor McCrory and our state legislators are not pledging to make that crucial investment, putting more people at risk of going hungry and falling far short of building the pipeline of skilled workers in every community.
State health and human services officials who oversee SNAP, however, are seeking ways to limit the blow of the harsh time limit by participating in a federally-funded “SNAP to Skills” project alongside nine other states. The two-year project will provide in-depth technical assistance to help state officials design and expand SNAP employment and training programs (E&T) that are rooted in innovative and effective best practices. SNAP E&T programs help SNAP participants build the skills that are required to succeed in today’s job market by combining education, training, and support services.
The leadership at the state agency should be applauded for their proactive efforts. There is a clear need to expand and strengthen the state’s SNAP E&T program, which is voluntary but effective at improving employment outcomes. Only nine of the state’s 100 counties operate an E&T program. And of the E&T slots available statewide, fewer than 1,300 of them are expected to be filled by the 100,000-plus childless adults subject to the time limit, according to the state E&T plan.
Inadequate funding is one reason why only a handful of counties offer an E&T program. While the federal government provides states with grant funding, it does not cover all of the expenses to operate programming and part of the federal funding requires a local contribution to make up the difference. State lawmakers failed to allocate money for the E&T contribution in the state budget so local governments are responsible for the cost if they want to provide job training opportunities to support sustainable pathways to family-supporting jobs.
Expanding job-training programs is crucial because the people who are about to lose food assistance face barriers to employment. Some are youth aging out of the foster care system, veterans, and people who have criminal records or low literacy skills. By providing the opportunity to build skills, these workers will be more successful in the labor market and, in turn, provide a bigger boost to their local economy through higher earnings and greater financial stability.
State lawmakers should commit to invest state dollars in SNAP E&T programs and pledge to provide more slots to adults who will be hurt by the time limit in 2016. The upcoming “short” legislative session presents an opportunity to make that pledge. Doing so would help ensure that more counties—especially rural ones with very limited resources and fewer well-resourced community partners—are able to help people regain their footing on the economic ladder and strengthen their local economy.
SNAP is an effective tool at reducing hunger and meeting the basic nutritional needs of people, but it also can nourish a thriving economy if it is used to support North Carolinians when they need it most and increase their access to skills training at the same time. Failure by state policymakers to recognize the economic benefits of food assistance to all North Carolina communities will only hinder our ability to build an inclusive economy.
Tazra Mitchell is a Policy Analyst at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center.