Congress Should Change SNAP benefits that Penalize Returning Citizens Who Work

May 26, 2023   |  By William Lewis

I'm one of the lucky ones. After serving over 20 years in prison, I thought my most vital necessities - food and housing - were lost.

I am grateful for a supportive family that helped me transition back into society. My brother made sure I got off to a good start by buying me a laptop, an outfit for job interviews, and a used car to commute to work. My aunt lets me live with her while I complete job training.

As a participant with the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a non-profit that provides employment training and a daily wage to returning citizens in 31 locations across the United States, I was able to earn money while building skills to get a permanent job.

But my work with CEO came with a downside: my job training income disqualified me from the full Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The $250 a month in food stamps that I received from SNAP was critical to my ability to rebuild my life following prison and the hope to one day be able to support myself. When those benefits were cut in half, it felt like a punishment for the four days of the week I trained on a CEO transitional job crew.

I’m not the only one. Many returning citizens must decide between getting food benefits or completing paid training for a career that will provide long-term wage growth and help end legal system involvement. Fortunately, there is a simple fix available. Lawmakers don’t agree on much these days, but last week bipartisan Congressmembers, Reps. Espaillat (NY-D), Miller (R-OH), Adams (D-NC), and Molinaro (R-NY), introduced the Training and Nutrition Stability Act (TNSA) to allow individuals to keep their SNAP benefits while working towards self-sufficiency in a job training program.

As Congress considers the renewal of the 2023 Farm Bill this year, I and others like me hope they will incorporate TNSA into their negotiation, and change the law to allow people with high barriers to keep benefits while we work hard toward our goals.

The experience of serving on a crew is an essential part of the CEO training process by allowing supervisors to observe participants so they can assess our ability to listen and carry out instructions, our aptitudes for team building, our work ethic, and our ability to get to work on time. CEO participants also have the opportunity to train for credentials, like a commercial driver’s license and IT certifications.

The $64 we receive daily after taxes makes it so that we can afford to continue in the program and obtain the skills and training we need to secure a quality job that will lead to a career; however, it is not enough to cover all of our costs.

When my SNAP benefits were cut, I was forced to struggle everyday to make ends meet. My only hope was that my CEO training would pay off and I would find a good career before everything blew up in my face.

SNAP benefits allow people to go beyond where their next meal will come from and focus on what they need to do to overcome the other barriers that stand between them and a productive and healthy life.

And personally, SNAP benefits give me something that is of immeasurable value: the ability to shop for the food that I want and pay for it just like everybody else. It gives me feelings of independence, self-respect, and dignity, which are just as vital to my mental and emotional well being as the food I purchase is for my body.

That is why SNAP benefits are a critical and effective tool to build productive, stable, and fulfilling lives for people impacted by the justice system and their communities. Congress can change the law to allow people with high barriers to engage in job and skills training and keep benefits while we work hard toward our goals. I hope we stop being penalized for receiving assistance that helps get us to a place where we can provide for ourselves.

William Lewis is a Policy Committee Member and former alum for Center for Employment Opportunities’ Participant Advocacy Council. William now works as a Youth Specialist at Oakland County Children’s Village.