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Maryland expands food stamp program after losing federal money

— Maryland failed to make use of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal job-training money last year to help low-income families that receive food stamps prepare for the job market — a deficiency state officials are now working to rectify.

The state received a $1.2 million federal grant as part of its food stamp funding for the fiscal year that ended in September. The money was supposed to be spent on job training, but the state sent nearly $500,000 back to Washington. It is unclear whether the state has returned similar sums in other years.

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More than half of all states last year did not use all of their federal job-training funding associated with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps. Nationally, states left more than $18 million of the funding on the table, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Roughly one in five Maryland households— about 781,000 individuals — rely on food stamps. The federal government spent $1.1 billion on the program in Maryland last year.

The associated job training is intended to lift those beneficiaries out of poverty — and off the program.

"It's really too bad because a lot of states could be doing a lot more," said Steven Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Officials in Gov. Larry Hogan's administration are working to make more use of the federal grant. The Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that Maryland is one of 10 states accepted into SNAP to Skills, a program intended to bolster job and workforce training for food stamp beneficiaries.

Federal officials stressed the program is not punitive, and noted that it was the state that reached out to the USDA to expand its effort.

Maryland is "leaving money on the table to make the connection between jobs and job seekers," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Baltimore Sun. "We want them, and we want other states, to do a better job."

Congress has required states to provide job training for food stamp beneficiaries since the 1980s. States have taken different approaches on how to reach that goal, and some have been more comprehensive than others.

"Some states use their federal funding to operate strong skills-building programs," said Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. "Others simply require job search or workfare, and terminate people from food assistance if they are unable to comply."

The welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 required many working-age SNAP recipients without children to get work or enroll in a job training program. Those who did not were pushed off the program after three months.

While that requirement was waived in many parts of the country during the recession, it is now coming back into force as the economy improves. Maryland's statewide waiver ended in January. Baltimore City and 10 counties continue to be exempt from the requirements.

Because the waivers are beginning to expire — threatening benefits for some — Maryland and other states are working to boost their job training programs.

Officials at the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which administers the program, declined an interview request to discuss the state's effort or the USDA's announcement.

Maryland sought USDA's help to expand the program, and a spokeswoman for the state department said in a statement that Maryland was chosen because of its commitment to doing so.

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The "administration is committed to ensuring programs maximize the use of resources to provide high quality programs and positive outcomes for Maryland residents in need," spokeswoman Katherine Morris said in a statement. She did not directly address the state's failure to spend all of its federal grant.

"SNAP to Skills will help recipients gain the skills they need to prepare for and secure solid employment that can reduce their need for" assistance, she said.

Other states taking part in the effort to bolster the workforce training effort include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Congressional Republicans were critical of state training efforts when the food stamp program was reauthorized under the 2014 farm bill. That criticism stemmed in part from an Government Accountability Office audit in 2011 that found states were not adequately measuring progress of beneficiaries enrolled in the training.

"It's a perfect boondoggle," said Robert E. Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "On the other hand, you can use that money very effectively for work requirements."

Rector pointed to Maine as an example of a state with more strict work requirements for food stamps. More than 9,000 residents were removed from the program after those tighter regulations took effect.

Advocates say expanded workforce training could have a tangible impact in people's lives.

"Today's job market really requires skills beyond a high school degree," said Brooke DeRenzis, a senior state policy analyst at the Washington-based National Skills Coalition SNAP. The education and training programs "help people build their skills … that lead to family-supporting careers."

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