How Pa. nonprofits are leveraging federal funds to get food stamp recipients into jobs

James, a CEO participant, shows DHS Secretary Teresa Miller around a job site in Harrisburg. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Inside a Harrisburg building that once housed a debt collection agency, James is leading a tour through a construction zone.

In one room is a collection of ceiling tiles, removed and stacked neatly against a wall. In another is a cement floor covered in glue, a remnant of some recently removed carpet.

“Your shoes will get stuck,” he warns. “Believe me.”

James is a formerly incarcerated person, meaning it’s a lot harder for him to find a job. (The Capital-Star is not using his last name to avoid further penalizing him for his time in prison.)

But this week, he’ll start a full-time job as a laborer after completing job training through the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a nonprofit that serves returning citizens.

CEO is one of 11 organizations in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh currently taking advantage of a program known as SNAP 50/50.

For every dollar one of these nonprofits spends training someone who receives food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, they’re eligible for a 50-cent reimbursement from the federal government.

On average, it costs around $6,400 to train one SNAP recipient through the 50/50 program, according to a Department of Human Services spokesperson. The organization is reimbursed half of that, or $3,200.

On Friday, state Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller touted the program at a CEO job site in Harrisburg. She said the goal is to double the number of organizations taking advantage of the program by the end of the year.

Kia Hansard, Dauphin County director for CEO, said job training participants learn about financial empowerment, life skills, cognitive behavioral therapy, and how to talk about their convictions. After orientation, they work for CEO on crews that do outdoor maintenance, construction site prep, and more while looking for full-time employment.

Some CEO jobs pay minimum wage — $7.25 an hour in Pennsylvania — while others pay more. James was paid $13.47 an hour by the Harrisburg Housing Authority for his work at the job site Miller visited Friday.

While CEO serves formerly incarcerated people and offers paid work experience, the other participating nonprofits target different populations.

Community Kitchen Pittsburgh offers culinary training to people who were homeless, while another nonprofit, Philabundance, does the same for low- and no-income people. New Century Careers in Pittsburgh trains people 18 and older for manufacturing careers.

In the city of Lancaster, where nearly 40 percent of the population is Latinx, the Spanish American Civic Association’s Tec Centro offers bilingual skills training and English as a second language classes. The organization also offers career training, primarily in the healthcare field, Program Director Marlyn Barbosa said.

Barbosa estimated that 75 percent of the people who complete training to become a certified nursing assistant are placed into a job.

To enroll in one of Tec Centro’s training courses, participants pay a $50 fee and for books, uniforms, a criminal background check, and a medical exam, when necessary.

But SNAP recipients who are in a job training program are eligible for additional funds for childcare, clothing, transportation, books, and fees.

“Having the SNAP 50/50 really allows us to reach a clientele that couldn’t get into training programs because they couldn’t pay [it],” Barbosa said.

Hansard said CEO participants have used the SNAP allowances to buy jeans and long-sleeve T-shirts needed to be on a crew, or to pay for a car repair.

“We have participants that are coming home, they don’t have anything. So that clothing allowance helps tremendously,” she said.

“We appreciate SNAP,” Hansard added, “because if it weren’t for SNAP, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing.”

While the 50/50 program is open to all food stamp recipients, Miller sees it as particularly beneficial to those subject to work requirements.

As part of sweeping welfare reform led by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, so-called able-bodied adults who aren’t caring for a child are required to work or be in a work program to receive food stamps for more than three months.

Under federal regulations, states can request a waiver in areas with high unemployment or a lack of jobs. At the moment, 63 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are exempt, as well as the city of Lancaster and the borough of Pottstown in Montgomery County.

The Trump administration wants to crack down on those waivers by raising the necessary unemployment rate and limiting which areas can be grouped together.

Moving forward, Barbosa said she wants to make more people aware of the program, which she called “underused.”

“I want to make sure that we can … make people aware that this is a service that is available,” she said.

James, for his part, wants to save money so he can move out of a halfway house and into his own place.

He said Friday he was in a “dark place” when he was released from prison last year. But he quickly realized he needed to do something and got connected to CEO, which he said made him a better person.

“I can do this,” he said. “I have to live.”

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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