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  ·   By Kermit Kaleba, Quad City Times   ·  Link to Article

Guest view: Trump could learn from Iowa community college

On Wednesday, President Trump visited Kirkwood Community College. While the purpose of his visit was to learn about specific agricultural training opportunities at this well-regarded institution, I hope he also heard how the college uses a little-known federal program called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment & Training (SNAP E&T) to help Iowans transition from public assistance into good-paying careers.

SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, assists people facing hunger afford healthy food. Although the food assistance SNAP provides is extremely modest – averaging only $1.40 per person per meal – the program keeps more than 8 million people out of poverty nationwide, including nearly 4 million children and more than 380,000 Iowans.

But another benefit of the program is the employment and training component that some states have used to help people combat hunger in the long term and move off public assistance by helping them get the education and training they need to get good-paying jobs. SNAP E&T provides funding to help community colleges like Kirkwood develop and implement training programs that help SNAP participants enhance their skills and earn credentials that are in demand in Iowa and the heartland’s labor market.

But today, the SNAP E&T program is at risk – and so are the successful programs it funds - like the ones at Kirkwood and other community colleges across Iowa. Despite all the progress that’s been made to strengthen and improve SNAP and President Trump’s efforts to highlight the programs at Kirkwood, his proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 budget would reduce overall funding for SNAP and would make steep cuts to other workforce and education programs. And Congress has also signaled that they might try to impose stricter work requirements on SNAP recipients and make similar cuts.

What I hope President Trump learned at Kirkwood is that cutting funding for important training programs like those that benefit SNAP participants across the country is not only bad for those who benefit from the program but bad for our economy as well.

Iowa has been using the SNAP E&T funding to expand their PACE career pathways initiative and their GAP tuition program, which last year helped more than 3,400 low-income Iowans enter into and succeed in high quality training programs at community colleges across the state.

These programs are incredibly successful with nearly a 90 percent overall job placement rate. That means employers are getting the skilled workers they need, more workers are able to transition off of SNAP more quickly, and more money is being injected into our economy. These two programs are also voluntary, meaning that people aren’t required to participate to maintain their food assistance benefits; this is important because it means students are motivated by a desire to improve skills, not just to keep food on the table.

When the federal Farm Bill was reauthorized in 2014, SNAP E&T was strengthened through bipartisan compromise. The law now requires new performance reporting – meaning states can figure out which investments are really working – and which ones aren’t. The law also makes investments in pilot projects that help test out new strategies for moving people into family-supporting jobs; and the US Department of Agriculture helps states share best practices and strategies that work.

Of course, it’s important to make sure that people on public assistance have meaningful pathways to work. But in many cases, people on SNAP are already working – what SNAP recipients are missing are opportunities to attend training and education programs, increase their skills, and move up a career ladder to a job that pays enough for them to move off of food assistance. That’s why “work first” approaches don’t always help.

Iowa (and the entire country) needs more of these innovative programs – programs that help communities train motivated people, help connect trained workers with local businesses that need their skills, and help people land jobs with family-supporting wages.

That’s why so many workforce advocates are encouraging president Trump to ensure that the next Farm Bill sustains the good parts of SNAP E&T and rejects counterproductive proposals to impose harsher work requirements on SNAP participants. Likewise, we should rethink the proposed budget cuts to job training and education programs that undermine successful state and local efforts and instead support real workforce development – which requires improving the skills of potential employees and supporting their search for work.

Cutting training programs like those at Kirkwood are counterproductive, and I hope that was a key takeaway for President Trump during his visit.

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