Access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Employment and Training (E&T) programs are critical tools for individuals involved in the justice system who are working towards stability and sustainable participation in the workforce. However, current laws around eligibility for these programs are unintentionally making it harder for recipients to both maintain food security and develop the skills to find a quality job. The bipartisan Training & Nutrition Stability Act (H.R.3087) addresses this issue with a technical fix so people are not forced to make this choice. Sponsored by Rep. Espaillat (NY), Rep. Miller (OH), Rep. Adams (NC), and Rep. Molinaro (NY), H.R.3087 would disregard income made through SNAP E&T programs from SNAP income eligibility calculations so recipients can maintain their food benefits while they pursue training programs that allow them to access good quality jobs. This is Fred's story of how SNAP and SNAP E&T have been critical to his reentry journey and search for a quality job.
More than 600,000 individuals return home from prison each year in the United States; almost half cannot secure full-time employment in the first few years after leaving incarceration despite working hard to start a career. For many of the individuals returning from incarceration, access to SNAP is an essential part of the reentry transition. Additional barriers faced by returning citizens include accessing housing, vital documents, medical care, and more. Being able to access SNAP benefits to purchase food and meet basic nutritional needs, therefore, becomes even more essential during this time.
Fred Hammond, a Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) participant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was motivated to begin his transition back to his community when released from incarceration. Fred’s goal was to identify a career path that would provide him with a sustainable income. In December 2022, as part of his reentry process, Fred began paid employment training at CEO. There, he worked daily in a transitional job performing landscaping and litter abatement while also receiving job coaching and daily feedback to prepare for the workforce. Fred was interested in leveraging additional training opportunities at CEO, so he enrolled in an IT training course offered through CEO’s partnership with CompTIA as a registered apprenticeship—a 12 to 16-week paid internship that provided knowledge of technical support fundamentals, computer networking, operating systems, and IT security. What Fred didn’t know or prepare for was losing access to his SNAP benefits as a result of seeking this additional training.
After Fred’s SNAP benefits decreased drastically to $23 a month, he reached out to his local office to get more information about why his benefits had plummeted. Fred was informed that in calculating his income, the program started to include Fred’s stipend from the IT training program that he joined in an effort to access quality job opportunities. However, what the program did not take into consideration is Fred’s monthly rent and additional responsibilities that would not leave him with enough money to purchase food.
As the cost of living increased around the nation, Fred had found a temporary solution while working to get himself on his feet until his benefits were cut. “I am single, and with monthly food stamps, it allows me to shop.” Fred continued, “I have transportation expenses, rent, utilities, and more that were not considered before my benefits were cut. My goal is to move forward, and I shouldn’t be penalized for that—I’m not sitting still, I’m actually working to do better so that I can eventually get off benefits completely.”
Fred is a 61-year-old returning citizen, and like many, though it has been a hard process, he has found ways to manage. Fred decided that he would not give up, and he worked through the process of proving to the SNAP program that he did not have enough funding to support himself monthly. When asked what the process was like, Fred stated: “The process and solution took about 2-3 hours of holding on the phone and lots of paperwork to process back and forth for days just to get an outcome. Luckily for me, I had the support of my job coach at CEO because many people like me would have given up." Fred believes that having access to support like SNAP helps people returning home from incarceration to focus on living a better lifestyle. “I think with the SNAP program, you shouldn’t penalize a person that is trying to be better because you could just be starting a job and trying to save to get your life right, and all of a sudden, food stamps are snatched from you without warning. There should be some type of transitional plan to help you prepare accordingly.”
Congress can implement a single policy change that would help others avoid situations like Fred’s—exempt temporary training income earned through workforce development programs like CEO from SNAP eligibility measures.
In the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress recognized the value of "earn and learn" training for SNAP recipients by authorizing paid work-based learning in SNAP E&T. Receiving daily pay as CEO allows individuals to be more secure during their transition while building skills for a long-standing career. However, an unintended consequence of this change is that people who are receiving paid training are also seeing their SNAP benefits dramatically reduced or losing access to the program entirely.
In 20 CEO locations, individuals receiving minimum wage for 40 hours of paid training per week with a SNAP E&T partner will lose access to their SNAP benefits before completing their training, as this temporary wage increases their income beyond the limit of 30% over the federal poverty line. As a result of existing policy, people like Fred, who are striving for a better life as they transition back into the workforce, are forced to choose between accessing training or food security. In the 2023 Farm Bill, Congress has the opportunity to keep people from having to make this debilitating choice and instead help organizations like CEO to set them up for further professional, financial, and long-term success.