July 18, 2023

Ricketts promoting Nebraska program that helps some food aid recipients find better jobs

Omaha World-Herald

LINCOLN — U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts introduced a bill Tuesday aimed at promoting a Nebraska program that has helped hundreds of food assistance recipients get new and better jobs and reduce their need for public benefits.

The legislation is the first piece of his “Proven Nebraska Solutions Ready for America” package. The legislation’s goal is to encourage other states to follow Nebraska’s lead.

In this case, the SNAP Next Step program helps people getting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits identify employment barriers and figure out ways to overcome them. SNAP benefits are commonly known as food stamps.

“We owe it to struggling Americans to provide them opportunities for a hand up and not just a handout,” Ricketts said about his bill. “Better jobs and higher pay mean these workers can spend more time with family and be less dependent on government assistance. It’s a win for workers, their families, employers, and taxpayers.”

SNAP Next Step began during Ricketts’ administration as governor of Nebraska. It started as a pilot program in Grand Island in 2016 and is now active in 41 counties.

In the program, workers from both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor work with participants to identify employment barriers and figure out ways to overcome them.

The program has helped many participants get jobs that pay better, have better benefits or have more family-friendly work hours. Those who finished the program increased their monthly income by more than $2,100. About 60% were able to get off of food assistance and the other 40% reduced their need for SNAP benefits.

One of the success stories was April Claussen, a single mother who got help through SNAP Next Step to go back to community college and get out of a low-wage, low-skill convenience store job and into a better-paying job with benefits.

Speaking in 2021, she said the program helped her pay for books, buy gas to get to job interviews and craft an effective résumé. More important, she said, the state employees who worked with her provided the coaching and encouragement she needed to persevere.

“They set my path, they pushed me,” she said. “The accountability and support they gave me was phenomenal.”

Other past participants included a single mother who went from making $900 a month with no benefits as a waitress to making $2,700 a month with health insurance, a pension and other benefits. Another person went from earning $492 a month through part-time self-employment to $2,528 a month, which meant being able to get off food stamps.

But the program is limited in scope. To date, 906 people have started the program and 423 have completed it, according to HHS officials. Some who started are still enrolled or working with the program to find employment. People can enroll or leave the program at any time.

The number of participants is a small portion of the 156,755 people currently getting SNAP benefits in Nebraska. The total includes children, the elderly and people with disabilities who are unable to work.

SNAP Next Step is Nebraska’s version of a federally required SNAP Employment and Training program. Federal law requires all states to have such programs but gives them considerable flexibility in designing the programs, including the populations and locations to target and the components to incorporate.

Ricketts’ bill would make clear in law that states can use SNAP administrative funds to recruit people for employment and training programs and to carry out the programs. The legislation also requires states to post a benefits calculator online so people can see how increased wages would affect their benefits and whether they would be better off earning more.

Ricketts’ spokesman, Ian Swanson, said the senator will be working to build “bipartisan and bicameral support” to get his proposal included in the upcoming farm bill.


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