The Potential of a Whole-Family Approach to Economic Mobility
By SABINE SCHOENBACH, with ALEXANDRA FORTER SIROTA, Budget & Tax Center Director
With economic mobility in North Carolina ranking among the lowest in the country and the persistent challenges of low-wage work, communities across North Carolina are embracing new tools that can remove barriers to employment and support the whole family as it strives for economic security and well-being. One such tool is an employment and training program offered to households that qualify for food assistance or SNAP/FNS (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/Food and Nutrition Services, as it is called in North Carolina). The program works by drawing down federal money to support the services that can lead to successful employment in better paying jobs due to the acquisition of credentials and participation in skills training (see Breakout Box for detailed program description).
The program’s success nationwide has led to an increasing number of states developing more ambitious plans to leverage the program for economic security goals. North Carolina is one of those states, and since 2015, it has been a recipient of the SNAP to Skills technical assistance program from the US Department of Agriculture to support the expansion of the voluntary program in more counties across the state. The results have been clear — the state began 2016 with just 9 counties engaged in the program and as of Fiscal Year 2020 will have 18 counties in the program.
FNS E&T programs across North Carolina share a goal of reducing hunger while building a better-trained workforce. North Carolina’s county-by-county approach, however, means that each county structures its E&T program, its partnerships, and its supports slightly differently to reach that goal. Some differences stem from disparities in county needs — programs in rural counties, for instance, might allocate more funding for transportation support. Other differences relate to existing regional community partnerships and the organizational and staff capacity within each county.
While the flexibility of North Carolina’s county-by-county approach allows for innovation and customization, the lack of one standard “guide” to creating a county program also brings its own challenges to counties that may already be working with scarce resources and time.
As an initial step to building greater awareness of the opportunities and barriers counties may face in planning and implementing successful FNS E&T programs in North Carolina, we spoke with agency staff and community partners in a range of emerging and existing programs across the state. In November and December 2019, we conducted a series of 12 interviews across six counties, asking DSS staff, Education Navigators, and community stakeholders about their experiences around program planning, design, implementation, and future orientation (see Appendix A for the Interview Guide).
The following themes and takeaways are not meant to be generalizable but instead are insights into particular local experiences that we hope will help to inform future planning processes.
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