New Thinking About Food Stamps in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is relying on an unusual argument to tie new work requirements to food stamps: It says it needs the workers.

The governor is expected to sign legislation in the coming weeks that would require people with school-age children who receive food stamps to work 30 hours a week.

Behind Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s argument is Wisconsin’s unemployment rate, which hit a historically low 3% in December. The labor force grew 1.2% in 2017, and the state’s jobs listings website shows nearly 100,000 positions unfilled. Mr. Walker believes some of the 925,000 people on the state’s FoodShare program could help.

“We can’t afford to have anybody on the sidelines,” Gov. Walker said in an interview. “This is as much as anything a workforce issue.”

The White House and other states are also considering more stringent work requirements for welfare recipients. But while President Donald Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have both made a more traditional conservative argument against welfare benefits, saying some recipients use government assistance to avoid work, Mr. Walker has focused instead on economics.

“This is the first time I’ve seen this rhetoric as a reason for work requirements,” said Craig Gundersen, an economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies the federal food stamp program. He said he is skeptical that benefit recipients will be able to fill the worker shortage if employers are searching for high-skilled workers.

Anti-hunger advocates say there is limited evidence that the state’s job-training program is successful in getting people stable, well-paying work, and that new work requirements will mean more people will go hungry.

National welfare reform has historically passed in periods of low unemployment, such as in 1996, said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Ms. Waxman said by focusing on the economy, proponents of the legislation can shift the discussion away from the bill’s negative impact on low-income families.

The move comes amid broader Republican efforts to cut welfare benefits. In January, Mr. Perdue said tightening work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is a priority in the next U.S. farm bill. In February, the Agriculture Department said it would be seeking public input for ways to “help able bodied SNAP participants move from government dependency to self-sufficiency,” according to a spokesperson.

States including Missouri and New Hampshire are weighing similar measures.

“I would say to anti-hunger advocates across the nation to really be ready, because it’s coming,” said David Lee, executive director of Feeding Wisconsin, a statewide network of food banks.

Wisconsin waived work requirements for food assistance in 2008 under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Mr. Walker reinstated them in 2015, requiring adults without dependents to work 20 hours a week and attend a state job training program. After the rules were imposed, some 25,000 food-stamp recipients entered the job market. Another 86,000 either lost their benefits after failing to meet the new requirements or no longer needed government assistance.

The current bill extends the requirements to people with children over 6 years old, and requires 30 hours of work a week. Participating in the state’s job training program is mandatory but time spent there counts toward the 30-hour requirement. The legislation is estimated to cost about $70 million annually, according to a state fiscal analysis. Parts of the law would require waivers from the federal government before being implemented.

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Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services estimates that about 61,300 people will be screened due to the legislation and about 27,000 will be able to meet the new requirements. Some will be exempt from the requirements for a variety of reasons, such as pregnancy or disability, some will find jobs that make government assistance no longer necessary, and some will ultimately lose their benefits. No estimate was available for how many people could lose benefits.

“I have no doubt that at least 25,000 more in the next two years would have very successful entry into employment,” said Republican state Rep. Scott Krug. “That’s the minimum I would imagine.”

The Wisconsin bill received no support from the 49 Democrats in the 132-member legislature, a sign that other states without Republican-controlled legislatures could struggle to pass similar legislation. Federal legislative efforts could face similar hurdles, with only a slight Republican majority in the Senate.

In Wisconsin, a household of four would need to make less than $2,050 a month in net income to qualify for the state’s program. That family would receive a maximum of $640 toward food.

Many in the program are low-wage workers in unstable or temporary jobs, making it challenging for some to reach a 30-hour workweek. Some may also face challenges with transportation or child care.

Tyie Andino, 50 years old, enrolled in the state’s job-training program so she could receive food benefits, but she missed several appointments after a friend became sick. When she tried to enroll again, Ms. Andino was told she had to retake classes because of the missed appointments. She dropped out of the program, and her food benefits were taken away. Ms. Andino is now homeless.

“It’s a waste of time,” she said of the job-training program. “Some of us don’t know how to complete an application, some of us don’t have skills, but some of us do.… We don’t need to be doing these classes.”

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