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Originally published May 28, 2013 at 8:19 PM | Page modified May 28, 2013 at 8:49 PM

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Off food stamps and employed — with taxpayers’ help

Washington’s food-stamp program has helped thousands find jobs and get off public assistance through a federally funded employment-training program. A bill in the U.S. House calls for replicating that program nationally — even as lawmakers weigh food-stamp spending cuts.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — Dede O’Loughlin’s mother dropped out of high school and got by on food stamps. Then O’Loughlin herself became that mother to her three sons.

O’Loughlin, a 40-year-old single parent from North Seattle, wanted to break the pattern for her children. And thanks to that very food-stamp program, she likely will.

O’Loughlin is among thousands of Washington residents who, since 2005, have gone from collecting public assistance to collecting paychecks — a switch footed by taxpayers. She took advantage of help offered by Basic Food, the state’s food-stamp program, to target a career and train for it.

For O’Loughlin, that job was as family-service coordinator at Seattle Children’s, a position that pays roughly double the minimum wage.

Now Congress may replicate the state’s Basic Food Employment & Training program elsewhere around the nation. A five-year farm bill awaiting a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives includes a provision written by Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, for a three-year, $30 million pilot effort to “reduce dependency and increase work effort.”

It’s small money for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which last year spent nearly $78.5 billion to stretch grocery budgets for nearly 47 million low-income Americans. But it comes as House Republicans, animated by what they consider runaway spending on welfare benefits, are seeking to cut $20.5 billion from food stamps over the next decade.

The version of the farm bill pending in the Senate, too, would reduce food-stamp benefits. The proposed cut there is $4 billion over 10 years, after Democrats beat back an earlier Republican amendment calling for a reduction of $30 billion.

The two chambers will have to hash out their differences — and whether to keep DelBene’s pilot proposal — after they return from their Memorial Day recess.

The jobs program for Washington’s food-stamp recipients has drawn notice for its focus on preparing people to get hired quickly.

The state contracts with community and technical colleges and nonprofit groups to help steer people into promising fields. The YWCA, for instance, runs an eight-week BankWork$ program in the Puget Sound area to train bank tellers. There also is a certified welding program at South Seattle Community College and culinary training for the homeless at FareStart, among others.

The help is intensive and expensive. Job seekers are guided through selections for colleges and courses, receive bus tickets and gas vouchers and get child care at no or nominal cost.

“We walk with the clients the whole way,” said Bob Thibodeau, Basic Food program manager.

Since 2005, an estimated 45,000 Basic Food recipients have taken advantage of the jobs program. A majority received education or vocational training, while 20 percent needed help only with job hunting.

A state analysis in October 2012 of 20,000 people who passed through the program during a four-year span beginning in late 2007 showed just over half of them employed, earning between $10 to $11 an hour, just above the state minimum wage of $9.19.

The state has yet to tally exactly how much the program costs taxpayers because, while the costs are immediate, the payoffs unfold over years. Nationally, each person on food stamps gets an average of $133 a month, or $4.45 a day. That’s less than the $150 in maximum monthly subsidy for transportation alone offered to Basic Food clients training for jobs. Taxpayers also pick up full tuition and fees. For a two-year culinary program, that can run to more than $15,000.

Federal and state governments split the roughly $24 million tab to help Basic Food clients get off assistance last year. By comparison, the total spending on electronic food-stamp benefits in Washington in fiscal 2012 was $1.7 billion.

An average of 1.1 million people in the state receive food stamps per month, or one of every six residents. Roughly 40 percent of them are children. The total food-stamp rolls have doubled since the recession in 2008, when the federal government allowed the state to raise the income cap for eligibility to 200 percent of the poverty level ($2,585 in monthly gross income for a family of two), from 130 percent.

The typical food-stamp recipient in Washington collects benefits for 34 months.

It was through the nonprofit Seattle Jobs Initiative, which works with low-income people seeking jobs, that O’Loughlin pursued training in medical-information technology. She enrolled at South Seattle Community College, daring to dream about a secure livelihood. She’d worked at McDonald’s and held other jobs with limited prospects.

At Seattle Children’s, O’Loughlin now has a job she loves, one that provides her boys — Cole, 16; Jack, 13; and Patrick, 4 — with full health, dental and vision coverage.

“It’s so much different than going somewhere and just getting a paycheck,” she said. “It’s changed our lives completely.”

In February, O’Loughlin stopped applying for food stamps. She said she can get by on her salary and child support, and wanted the benefits to go to someone else in need.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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