Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: More Complete and Accurate Information Needed on Employment and Training Programs

GAO-19-56 Published: Nov 20, 2018. Publicly Released: Dec 20, 2018.
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Fast Facts

To be eligible for benefits, some Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients must comply with work requirements, which may include participating in a state’s SNAP Employment and Training program. These programs are intended to help recipients become self-sufficient.

We found that only a small number of SNAP recipients participated in these programs—less than 1% per month on average in 2016. However, USDA has limited data on these programs, so it can’t monitor whether recipients are still eligible to receive benefits, or are achieving self-sufficiency.

We recommended that USDA collect better data on these programs.

Resource Center for Participants in a SNAP Employment and Training Program

Photo of people working at computers.

Photo of people working at computers.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program's (SNAP) Employment and Training (E&T) programs, which are overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and administered by states, have served a small percentage of SNAP recipients over time, and information on participant characteristics and outcomes is limited. In an average month of fiscal year 2016, SNAP E&T served about 0.5 percent of the 43.5 million SNAP recipients. Further, since 2008, the percentage of SNAP recipients served by SNAP E&T has declined. Participation in SNAP E&T may be low, in part, because most SNAP recipients were exempt from work requirements, according to USDA data. In addition, SNAP recipients may participate in other activities to comply with work requirements. Although data on the number of recipients served in SNAP E&T are generally reliable, USDA lacks reliable data on participant characteristics and outcomes because of imprecise instructions on data collection forms and staff confusion at the state level. USDA has taken some steps to address these issues, but data reliability issues persist. As a result, USDA's ability to assess whether agency goals are being met through the SNAP E&T program is limited, as is the department's ability to monitor states' implementation of work requirements and ensure program integrity.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Recipients Subject to Work Requirements and Participating in SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) Programs in an Average Month of Fiscal Year 2016

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Recipients Subject to Work Requirements and Participating in SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) Programs in an Average Month of Fiscal Year 2016

In fiscal year 2018, most state SNAP agencies partnered with workforce development system entities, such as community colleges and workforce agencies, to provide services to SNAP E&T participants, according to USDA data. Regional and state officials reported that state SNAP agencies often have used these partnerships to leverage non-federal funding sources and provide additional capacity and expertise to help expand SNAP E&T services. However, 3 states operated their own SNAP E&T programs without partnering with any other program, and a total of 20 states lacked partnerships with workforce agencies, according to USDA data for fiscal year 2018. Federal regulations require that SNAP E&T services be delivered through the state's workforce development system unless the services are not available locally through this system. USDA and state officials described challenges to forming effective partnerships with workforce agencies, including perceived disincentives to serving SNAP recipients. However, states that are not fully leveraging resources available through the workforce development system may miss opportunities to provide a wider variety of services to SNAP E&T participants and serve a greater number of SNAP recipients through SNAP E&T.

Why GAO Did This Study

SNAP is the nation's largest federally funded nutrition assistance program. In fiscal year 2017, it provided about $64 billion in benefits. To maintain eligibility for benefits, certain SNAP recipients must comply with the program's work requirements, which may include participating in a state's SNAP E&T program if required by the state.

This report examines (1) what is known about SNAP E&T program participants and outcomes over time and (2) the extent to which state SNAP E&T programs have partnered with other programs offering similar services. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance; analyzed USDA data on SNAP recipients, work registrants, and SNAP E&T participants from fiscal years 2008 through 2016, the most recent data available; reviewed states' fiscal year 2017 SNAP E&T plans and outcome reports; and interviewed USDA officials and state officials in five states selected, in part, to reflect a range of SNAP E&T program characteristics.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that USDA take additional steps to address SNAP E&T data reliability issues and to help states leverage available workforce development system resources. USDA officials generally agreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Food and Nutrition Service The Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) should identify and disseminate strategies to states and service providers for increasing the participation of SNAP recipients referred to the SNAP E&T program. (Recommendation 1)
Open
FNS officials agreed with this recommendation and indicated they are taking steps towards closing it. Specifically, FNS officials said they plan to take the following actions to disseminate strategies on increasing participation among SNAP recipients referred to the SNAP E&T program: 1) update the SNAP E&T Best Practices Study to include strategies on increasing participation by early 2022; and 2) publish results from Pilot Projects to Reduce Dependency and Increase Work Requirements and Work Effort Under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that include information regarding which outreach, referral, and enrollment processes are most effective by summer 2022. During the last two fiscal years, FNS has already taken some steps to address this recommendation. Specifically, FNS 1) offered technical assistance focused on behavioral science and client-centered design through its SNAP2Skills Project to improve program referral and retention processes and 2) released a toolkit featuring client-centered design and behavioral science-informed approaches to enhance engagement. We will continue to monitor FNS's efforts to disseminate strategies on increasing participation and engagement through these mechanisms with a particular focus on ensuring these strategies reach both state officials and service providers.
Food and Nutrition Service The Administrator of FNS should take additional steps to address data reliability issues in the state-reported data on SNAP E&T participant characteristics and outcomes, including steps to address imprecise instructions on data collection forms and staff confusion at the state level. (Recommendation 2)
Open
FNS generally agreed with this recommendation. Agency officials told us that they have contracted for an examination of how SNAP E&T data are collected, reported, and analyzed. According to FNS, the contractor will make recommendations to the agency on how to improve data systems and FNS has requested fiscal year 2022 funding to implement these recommendations. In addition, FNS previously reported plans to make changes to data reports and guidance with the goal of improving the quality of data obtained in fiscal year 2021. The agency also planned to leverage results and disseminate best practices from data and technical assistance grants that ended in September 2020. We will evaluate the implementation and results of these actions as we continue to monitor the agency's progress in addressing this recommendation.
Food and Nutrition Service The Administrator of FNS should determine and communicate to states how the agency will use newly reported outcome and participant characteristics data to assess the effectiveness of state SNAP E&T programs. (Recommendation 3)
Open
FNS officials agreed with this recommendation. FNS officials noted that with the submission of January 2019 outcome reporting measures, the agency has a complete year of data which FNS will use to establish a baseline for each State's SNAP E&T program. However, FNS has not yet articulated how the data will be used to assess effectiveness of the programs, or provided examples of how FNS has used the data to provide feedback on the effectiveness of SNAP E&T programs. We will continue to monitor FNS's efforts to communicate to the states how the outcome data can be used to assess program effectiveness.
Food and Nutrition Service The Administrator of FNS should take additional steps to assist states in leveraging available workforce development system resources. Such steps should include ensuring that state SNAP E&T plans provide the agency with sufficient information to verify that states have assessed available workforce development system providers. (Recommendation 4)
Closed - Implemented
FNS officials agreed with this recommendation and took steps that address it. FNS issued addenda to the fiscal year 2020 SNAP E&T state plan handbook and template to reflect the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 requirement for SNAP agencies to consult with state workforce development boards, private employers, or employer organizations in designing their SNAP E&T programs. Further, FNS officials said they will ensure that state plans provide sufficient information for FNS to verify that states have assessed available workforce development system providers. By ensuring that all states take steps to identify potential workforce development system partners, FNS will help to promote a more effective use of resources among SNAP E&T programs and the broader workforce development system.

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