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States to test ways to send food stamp recipients to work
Career coaching, mental health assistance to be utilized

WASHINGTON — New federal grants will help 10 states test programs to help food stamp recipients find jobs, from using career coaches to quicker training courses to mental health assistance.

The grants, announced Friday in Georgia by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 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. But the Obama administration sees better worker training as an alternative to cuts or stricter work requirements.

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

The food stamp program has long been the center of political wrangling in Washington, with elective officials debating it virtually endlessly. Republicans for the most part have called it a government give-away and have worked historically to rein it in, if not eliminate it. Many Democrats, particularly those in the party's liberal wing, have steadfastly fought cuts to the program, calling it an essential element of the federal government's safety net for the poor.

Washington provides the money for food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But it is administered by the states, with regulations varying from state to state. As part of the grant program, the Agriculture Department is contracting two private research organizations to evaluate the states' performance.

Only about a fifth of the 46 million SNAP recipients are eligible for training. The rest are elderly, disabled, children or already in the workforce.

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.

Among the winners:

In Georgia, participants would use an online tool developed by the state to create individualized work plans. In Kentucky, 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.

Other states receiving the grants are Delaware, Kansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Vermont, Virginia and Washington state.

Congress's virtually annual fight over the cost of food stamps grew more intense as the benefit rolls started climbing during the Great Recession, which was under way when President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

The Republican House passed a bill in 2013 that would have allowed states to put broad new work requirements in place. The bill also would have ended government waivers for some states that allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely. Current law only allows those adults to receive the benefits for three months in a three-year period.

Democrats, in keeping with traditional practice, opposed major cuts to the program, and the final farm bill only made an estimated 1 percent cut, with no new work requirements.

Vilsack has encouraged better worker-training programs as one way to trim the cost; the farm bill established the grants for states to test programs.

Republicans have also supported that approach.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, praised thecf grants, saying that states' innovative approaches "will help able-bodied SNAP recipients climb the economic ladder."

Still, the fight over foods stamps is continuing.

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.

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