SNAP is a food program — not a jobs program

Tiger Whitehead and his children Logic and Domnick, who used SNAP and the the Sustainable Food Center Farmer's Market double dollars coupons, shopping at the Farmer's Market at 2835 East MLK Blvd. in Austin on March 19, 2013. Photo by Spencer Selvidge

All Texans deserve the chance to provide for themselves and their families. But our modern, fast-changing economy is full of both opportunity and risk. Nearly everyone reading this knows a friend or family member who recently found themselves jobless, under-employed or struggling to pay unexpected bills.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps) is part of our nation’s insurance against economic uncertainty. SNAP guarantees that in a nation blessed with such agricultural abundance, none of our loved ones should go hungry while they get back on their feet.

But recent debates in Washington, from the federal budget to the farm bill, haven’t focused on SNAP’s success fighting hunger. Instead, lawmakers are looking to hold SNAP accountable for the problems in our economy and labor market that cause people to fall on hard times and turn to SNAP for help.

That’s a tall order for a program built to provide a basic human need. SNAP was designed as an income support, not a jobs program. That’s reasonable when one considers that most SNAP participants are children, seniors or people with disabilities; and that the majority of SNAP recipients who can work already do — just not at jobs that let them escape poverty.

Still, a small percentage of SNAP recipients (including those known as able-bodied adults without dependents) may be reasonably able and expected to use SNAP as a bridge back to work. Congress should look for ways to strengthen this bridge, but not in a way that undermines SNAP’s role in ensuring every American has enough food to build a healthy, productive life.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what proposals from congressional leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan would do. These call for steep funding cuts combined with more state flexibility to deny benefits to those in need, and greater punishment for folks who struggle to find work. These policies don’t reflect who benefits from SNAP today, or the various barriers to success in our modern job market.

They should seek ways that SNAP can help.

For one, SNAP's application process can be strengthened to include up-front screening for targeted services that will help recipients back on their feet, a case-management approach that has bipartisan support in Congress.

With more up-front screening, recipients could be categorized based on whether they are simply between jobs, have addressable barriers to employment or face complex needs that are beyond SNAP’s ability to help.

This three-tier system would better reflect the diversity of challenges facing underemployed SNAP recipients, with each tier receiving the services and incentives that would best help them.

Texas receives limited federal funds to prepare SNAP recipients for re-entry into the job market. Right now the state spends most of this money on unproductive, cookie-cutter activities like mandatory job searches and the policing of punitive sanctions. Even state authorities acknowledge they only provide “a fraction” of SNAP work registrants with real services under the current approach.

In a tiered system, this limited money could be spent on intensive, rigorously-evaluated services targeted at those who would benefit most. States should also be incentivized to seek private support to draw down more federal matching funds, working with local nonprofit partners like food banks to create a vibrant ecosystem of targeted employment services.

Much of this vision can be accomplished without the authorization of new federal funding, simply by tailoring work requirements, re-focusing existing resources and building public-private partnerships. If additional resources are needed, they should be found outside of the SNAP budget — certainly not by starving Peter to employ Paul.

SNAP is a nutrition program, not a jobs program. We shouldn’t expect it to shoulder the burden of sustainable employment in an increasingly rocky economy. But with a few sensible changes, SNAP can continue to nourish Texans while preparing them for a future in which they can provide entirely and proudly for themselves.

Disclosure: Feeding Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Celia Cole

CEO, Feeding Texas