Almost one-fourth of the households in Colquitt County (23.8 percent) receive food stamps, so when the federal government starts talking about changes to the program, it has a local impact.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a rule change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) that would make it harder for states to waive the program’s work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (called ABAWDs).

Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without children are required to work 20 hours a week to maintain their SNAP benefits, according to an Associated Press story about the proposal. ABAWDs can currently receive only three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period if they don’t meet the 20-hour work requirement. But states with an unemployment rate of 10 percent or higher or a demonstrable lack of sufficient jobs can waive those limitations.

States are also allowed to grant benefit extensions for 15 percent of their work-eligible adult population without a waiver. If a state doesn’t use its 15 percent, it can bank the exemptions to distribute later, creating what Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue referred to as a “stockpile.”

The USDA’s proposed rule would strip states’ ability to issue waivers unless a city or county has an unemployment rate of 7 percent or higher. The waivers would be good for one year and would require the governor to support the request. States would no longer be able to bank their 15 percent exemptions. The new rule also would forbid states from granting waivers for geographic areas larger than a specific jurisdiction.

The federal work requirement includes not only working an actual job but also training to get one. Each state has a program of job training that supports the work rules, but a report by the Government Accounting Office, released in November, shows a small number of eligible people in such training and raised questions about data collection in the program.

The report said there were 43.5 million SNAP recipients in the United States in an average month in 2016 (the most recent year with full data available). Of those, 6.1 million were subject to the work requirements, but only 200,000 of them participated in the SNAP Employment and Training Programs. The GAO cited several factors for that participation rate, including clients who already had jobs or who were participating in other training programs. One factor it called out was an increase in state waivers for ABAWDs, which may have contributed to the Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule change.

Another factor was the decrease in the number of states requiring the training. In 2008, 31 states required eligible SNAP recipients to participate in the Employment and Training Programs; by 2016, that was down to 19.

“FNS officials told us that there are various reasons states may move to voluntary programs,” the GAO report said. “For example, FNS officials said that many states have reported to them that offering employer-driven, skills-based, intensive employment and training services, such as vocational training or work experience, through voluntary programs yields more engaged participants with stronger outcomes. FNS officials stated that they have been actively encouraging states to offer these types of services because they believe these types of services are more effective in moving SNAP recipients, who may be more likely to have barriers to employment, toward self-sufficiency. However, they noted that SNAP E&T funding may not be sufficient to provide these types of services in mandatory programs that require participation by SNAP recipients and thus have higher participation. In addition, FNS officials told us that voluntary programs are less administratively burdensome than mandatory programs, as they allow states to focus on serving motivated participants rather than sanctioning non-compliant individuals.”

These programs — often through local community colleges or technical schools — provide literacy training, basic job skills and more advanced training, depending on the exact program, that will enable the client to get a job later.

There is nothing at all wrong with requiring able-bodied adults to work in order to continue receiving food stamps. That’s how they will be able to wean themselves off government assistance and stand on their own two feet.

But to do so without a stronger effort at training the clients to do jobs that earn a living wage will not be productive. It will simply toss them out on the street to survive any way they can.

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