With the futures of countless families and children at stake, the American people don’t need false promises or lectures from House Republicans about the value of hard work.
WHEN I heard that House Republicans were looking to expand a bipartisan job training and employment pilot program I spearheaded and that was signed into law by President Obama, I was pleasantly surprised. Speaker Paul Ryan even called it “the precise thing we need to do to get people from welfare to work.”
Once I reviewed the text of the recently released Farm Bill, it became obvious that the intent wasn’t to give people the skills they need to obtain higher-paying jobs that provide a livable wage. It was simply another attempt to take away nutrition assistance from millions of children and working families and call it “reform.”
Why are they doing this? Over the years, our state has become a national model for helping disadvantaged Americans land good-paying jobs. The Basic Food Employment and Training (BFET) program is a state-run initiative that receives federal funds. It offers people receiving assistance through the Supplemental Nutritional Access Program, also known as SNAP, access to job training and education so they can earn a living wage and become self-sufficient.
As a member of the Agriculture Committee in 2013, my immediate thought was to see if this program could be used as a model beyond Washington and help more people across the country. That is why I successfully pushed for $200 million to be included in the 2014 Farm Bill to conduct job training pilot programs for SNAP recipients. In addition to Washington state, projects in 10 other states were chosen.
It’s a good deal for taxpayers, families and employers, and early results have been promising. A 2014 National Skills Coalition study showed that 71 percent of people who started receiving BFET training in Washington state in 2009 found good-paying jobs. But we won’t get initial feedback on the 2014 grant funds until 2019. That information will be key to understanding how to best expand the program nationally.
Rather than waiting for those results, House Republicans are preparing to blow up the entire project. They say they are expanding the program across the country and increasing funding. This is disingenuous for two reasons.
First, the numbers don’t add up. Despite Republicans’ desires to make the program mandatory by 2021, a newly released report from the Congressional Budget Office says it will be at least 10 years before all 50 states can offer every eligible recipient a space in these programs.
Furthermore, a Center on Budget Polices and Priorities study shows most states don’t have the infrastructure to implement effective job-training programs right away, with costs running up to $14,000 per training slot. This means it could cost upward of $1.2 billion per month to run a successful work-training program nationwide. With Republicans only offering $1 billion total, we have to assume that many state-run programs will never get off the ground, and the ones that do will likely lack the resources to be successful.
As a former tech CEO and Microsoft executive, I know a bad deal when I see one. Spending money arbitrarily without considering the realities of implementation is baffling, especially coming from a Republican-led House that claims to want to spend taxpayer dollars more wisely.
Second, unlike the BFET model that allows SNAP recipients to participate voluntarily, the GOP plan makes it mandatory to participate in the program to receive nutrition benefits. Under the Republican plan, if you’re a single mom with two children, and can’t spend at least 20 hours per week in one of these programs, your kids might not get fed.
To some, it might seem reasonable to require participation, but for people living in rural areas, like the northern region of my district, training programs are not always accessible. Not everyone can afford a car. Bus routes don’t go everywhere. Republicans are demanding SNAP recipients participate in an underfunded program that has been designed to fail. The combination of a misguided participation requirement and terrible misuse of taxpayer funds before we have data to invest wisely could result in 2 million people either being shoved off vital nutrition assistance or taking a major cut in what they receive.
I took the SNAP Challenge a few years back, where you receive about 30 dollars to eat for a week, the average SNAP benefit. It means barely getting by, and an unhealthy diet with no fresh fruits or vegetables. I can tell you firsthand there is nothing luxurious about SNAP benefits. With the futures of countless families and children at stake, the American people don’t need false promises or lectures from House Republicans about the value of hard work.
While I believe programs modeled on BFET will succeed and our ultimate goal should be to help more people reap those benefits, we ought to slow down and put people before politics. We must study what works, what doesn’t work, and ways we can improve so that when we do expand, we are getting the best return on taxpayers’ investment — and truly helping people. If we get this right, many Americans who are most in need will have a real opportunity to find a path to economic independence. That would be a great deal, and an investment we should all be willing to make.