In 2009, during the depths of the economic recession, the federal government made it easier for Americans to get food stamps.
With unemployment rates climbing above 10 percent, the nation's GDP contracting and stocks tumbling, the feds removed the time limits on food stamps -- able-bodied adults with no children, who were previously limited to three months' assistance, could now receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits indefinitely.
With the economy recovering, at least on paper, and unemployment rates falling to pre-recession levels, the government has lifted the recession-era waiver, meaning childless adults are once again limited to three months' worth of SNAP benefits.
That's not a state decision -- it's mandatory, decided by the feds, and the only exemptions are a handful of states that haven't recovered from the recession.
For people still struggling to find jobs, the only way around that time limit is to secure part-time work, at least 80 hours per month, or participate in 80 hours of state-run job training programs.
The problem? The quality of those training programs varies widely from state to state, as Washington's The Columbian notes. The federal government doesn't offer much in terms of specifying what kind of job training programs must be made available to the unemployed or underemployed, leaving those people at the mercy of state departments of labor staffed by people who range from ultra-creative to entirely uninspired.
If the goal is to truly get people to return to work, and not simply to satisfy a federal requirement, states must think creatively. That means going beyond the standard fare and often snore-inducing, clinical job training classes -- while basic-level classes teaching job-searchers to use computers or spice up their resumes are good things, getting people to seriously think about changing careers and taking new approaches requires creativity.
That's what's happening in Washington, where the state's FareStart program offers adults a 16-week program designed to get them started in the culinary arts. Students "work side-by-side" with top chefs, take on increased responsibilities, and learn the ins and outs of fast-paced restaurant environments. When the training is over, they get help with their resumes, interviewing skills and job searches.
FareStart even operates highly rated restaurants and cafes in Seattle, which are potential job destinations for graduates of the program. There's also a social justice element: FareStart operates a Food Recovery Program, taking "short shelf life" excess food off the hands of restaurants to help soup kitchens, shelters and hospice programs in the area provide healthy meals to their clients.
Labor department directors in other states could also learn a thing or two from Louisiana's FastStart, an innovative job-training program that partners with companies to train job-seekers in specific fields that require specific skill sets. FastStart, which the Economist called "probably the most notable statewide workforce-development initiative" in the U.S., trains the unemployed and underemployed in skills like 3D graphics, photography, Web design, videography, project management and social media campaigning.
FastStart doesn't offer generalist classes geared toward finding work with nebulous future employers -- it matches people with companies that can use them, and places them in appropriate, real-world training programs. That benefits both clients and companies.
Louisiana's efforts have yielded results, with the state taking home top honors in Business Facilities magazine's 2014 rankings for best business climate.
“When we scrutinized all of the essential elements for a successful economic development program in today’s highly competitive market -- including workforce training, incentives, a business-friendly tax and regulatory structure, and a highly diverse, well-conceived growth strategy -- we consistently found an aggressive standard for excellence in Louisiana,” said Jack Roger, editor in chief of the trade publication.
At the end of the day, limiting food stamp benefits is a good thing in situations where adults can and should work. The goal, after all, is getting people back into the workforce, not settling them in for a lifetime of dependence on the federal government.
But if states are serious about returning the unemployed to work -- and helping their own economies grow -- it's going to require some lateral thinking when it comes to arming people with the skills they need to remain independent.