Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom

Senator Pat Roberts’s (R–KS) amendment to the Senate’s budget plan (S.Con.Res. 8) to eliminate funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s (SNAP) Employment and Training Program is a serious attempt at imposing some much-needed fiscal discipline in Congress.

According to the Government Accountability Office, officials at SNAP did not track any outcome measures for their employment and training program in fiscal year (FY) 2009. For example, SNAP officials failed to track how many program participants entered employment, how many experienced wage gains, how many attained credentials or education, and other obvious outcomes. (But this didn’t stop Congress from appropriating almost $401 billion for the program in FY 2009.) There may be a good reason SNAP bureaucrats do not want to assess program effectiveness.

In the late 1980s, the Department of Agriculture sponsored a large-scale, multisite experimental evaluation of what was at the time called the Food Stamp Employment and Training Program. Over 13,000 study participants at the 53 separate local food stamp agencies from 23 states were randomly assigned to intervention and control groups. Similar to job-training and welfare-to-work programs of today, participants were required to engage in job search activities, job search training, welfare and work experience activities, and educational and vocational skills training. Study participants were followed quarterly for one year. Overall, the program “was found to have no effect on participants’ employment and earnings, and only a relatively small effect on average food stamp benefits.”

The program was found to be ineffective on all 20 measures of employment and earnings. For example, 54.5 percent of the control group found employment during the first year, compared to 51.6 percent of the intervention group. The difference was statistically indistinguishable from no impact at all.

The program also had no effect on the number of days worked by the intervention group and the hourly wages of their current or most recent jobs. In addition, the program had no effect on the total earnings of participants. For example, the average yearly earnings for the intervention group were $2,475.15, while the control group averaged $2,542.60.

The program was found to have a statistically significant impact on only one of 10 measures of welfare dependency. Participation in the employment and training program failed to reduce the overall receipt of welfare cash assistance, but it did have a slight impact on reducing the amount of food stamp benefits received over the course of a year. For the year follow-up, the intervention group averaged $920 in food stamp benefits, while the control group averaged $985.

While the Food Stamp Employment and Training Program failed on all measures of employment, earnings, and general welfare cash assistance, it appears to have had a minute effect on reducing food stamp benefit level.

In contrast, there is a model for policy that does help welfare recipients move from government dependence into employment: the 1996 welfare reform, which inserted work requirements into the largest cash assistance welfare program. It required that states have roughly half of work-eligible adult recipients working, preparing for work, or looking for work. As a result of this policy, welfare rolls declined by half within five years, employment rates among low-income individuals jumped, and child poverty rates plummeted.

Senator Roberts is right that the ineffective SNAP Employment and Training Program should be eliminated. However, following the successful pattern of the 1996 welfare reform, it should be replaced with a strong work requirement.