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States test ways to send food stamp recipients to work

Mary Clare Jalonick
Associated Press

Washington — Ten states will test new ways to get food stamp recipients back to work, using Agriculture Department grants aimed at helping some of the 46 million Americans who receive benefits to move off the rolls.

The grants come as the Republican Congress is exploring ways to cut the program, which cost $74 billion last year — twice its cost in 2008. Some in the GOP have proposed stricter work requirements as a way to do that.

The winning ideas ranged from using career coaches to quicker training courses to mental health assistance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded grants to welfare agencies in California, Georgia, Kentucky, Delaware, Kansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

The USDA did not select Michigan’s proposal to tie food stamp eligibility to skilled trades training through a voluntary program in Wayne, Genesee and Saginaw counties, said Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Human Services.

Michigan DHS had proposed a program called “Better Off Working” to help about 1,500 unemployed adults with school-aged children and youth aging out of the foster care system get job training in nursing, welding and manufacturing. The program was to be paired with Gov. Rick Snyder’s “Pathways to Potential” program, which embeds state case workers inside schools in high poverty areas to help parents connect with job training and other support services.

Former state DHS Director Maura Corrigan had highlighted the proposal as a way to end generational government dependency before retiring in December.

USDA spokesman Cullen Schwarz said Friday the agency does not comment on rejected grant applications.

“There were many outstanding proposals among 46 applications, but unfortunately the law specified that we could only select ten projects,” Schwarz said in an email to The Detroit News. “Once the initial pilots are evaluated, the hope is Congress will expand the most successful strategies nationally so they can benefit additional states like Michigan.”

In Georgia, where Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the assistance Friday, participants would use an online tool developed by the state to create individualized work plans. Vilsack also previewed the announcement Thursday in Kentucky, where the state will work with local employers and teach skills for in-demand jobs, like food service. California will test child care programs for people who need work training as part of a family-centered approach.

Vilsack said 35 states applied for the $200 million in grants, which were part of a wide-ranging farm bill that became law last year.

The five-year farm bill sets policy for agricultural programs and nutrition aid like food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. House Republicans held up the bill for almost two years, arguing that food stamp spending needed to be cut.

In the end, the bill made an estimated 1 percent cut to the program and established the grants for states to test work training programs.

Vilsack said the grants will help USDA identify what works and doesn’t work in terms of getting people to work.

The federal government provides the money for food stamps but states administer the programs, with regulations varying from state to state. As part of the grant program, USDA is contracting two private research organizations to evaluate the states’ performance.

Only about a fifth of SNAP recipients are eligible for training. The rest are elderly, disabled, children or already in the workforce.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has started a comprehensive review of the program to see what’s working and what’s not, and Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas has pledged a similar review.

Conaway praised the grants, saying that states’ innovative approaches “will help able-bodied SNAP recipients climb the economic ladder.”

As in past years, a House budget proposed this week would transform the program into block grants to states, a move that could cut tens of billions from the program. A Senate version of the nonbinding budget resolution called for cuts to programs like SNAP but was not as specific in how they should be done.

Vilsack said he has “deep concerns” about the House proposal and said the job training is a better way to make SNAP work.

With block grants, “you are either going to cut people or cut benefits, and both approaches are the wrong way,” Vilsack said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.