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Wisconsin's Unprecedented Welfare Reform Could Inspire Conservative Changes Elsewhere

Gov. Scott Walker is poised to sign a sweeping package of bills that would make it harder to qualify for many safety net programs.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker walking in front of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference.
(Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is poised to sign a sweeping package of bills aimed at reducing welfare rolls by expanding work requirements and adding other restrictions. The proposals include several changes that no other state has tried and would require approval from the federal government.

“We have a governor who is running for office and wants to look like a leader on welfare reform,” says Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, an anti-hunger group in Wisconsin. “We’re a proving ground, and people should be paying very close attention to what’s going on here.”

Walker is up for re-election for what would be his third term this year.

The new laws would make it harder for some low-income people to obtain or keep food stamps, child care subsidies, health insurance and housing aid. The legislation passed both GOP-controlled chambers in February despite overwhelming opposition from Democrats. It is awaiting Walker's expected signature.

Republicans argue that the economy has improved, so fewer people should need government assistance. But Democrats say the work provisions don't do enough to ensure that people actually find jobs and might result in people losing their benefits. 

Some of the biggest changes would affect Wisconsin’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known by many as food stamps. Currently, states limit SNAP benefits for childless adults who don't have a disability and are not working or participating in job training for at least 20 hours a week. 

The Walker administration now wants the work requirement to apply to able-bodied parents with school-aged children, and it wants the hourly requirement to increase from 20 hours to 30 hours. Both changes would require approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is currently on a campaign to promote work in SNAP.

The agency is soliciting public comment on ideas to make food stamps recipients less dependent on government assistance. The White House has also asked Congress to limit states' ability to waive the SNAP work requirements during times of high unemployment. 

“Long-term dependency has never been part of the American dream,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue in a written statement in February. "For the able-bodied, we must reduce barriers to work, and hold both individuals and states accountable for participants getting and keeping jobs.”

Like most states, Wisconsin waived the SNAP work requirement for years after the Great Recession. But the Walker administration reinstated it in 2015 -- first in parts of the state with low unemployment and then everywhere else. Between 2015 and 2017, the period when the waivers expired, the number of SNAP recipients in Wisconsin dropped by about 19 percent.

That drop may be a preview of how the new legislation could cause fewer people to be covered by safety net programs. In addition to the SNAP work proposals, the welfare reform package would: 

  • prevent households from receiving food stamps or child care subsidies if the combined worth of their personal vehicle is more than $20,000;
  • prevent certain noncustodial parents from getting Medicaid coverage if they are behind in child support payments;
  • and require able-bodied recipients of federal housing assistance who are unemployed or underemployed to undergo drug testing and participate in an employability plan.  
Wisconsin would not need federal approval for those changes.

“What we have seen is every time new requirements, new notices, new barriers are put in the way of someone getting access to something like food share or medical assistance, families get discouraged and give up,” says Vicky Selkowe, a legislative director for Legal Action of Wisconsin, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to low-income people.

“They may drop out of those benefit programs. That does not mean that they are better off economically or less hungry or less in need of health care or child care,” she says.

Rep. Scott Krug, a Republican who chairs the state House Committee on Public Benefits Reform, counters: "The talk is always about us being punitive. Our goal is to make sure that everyone who can go to work is able to go to work."

While more than 25,000 food stamps users in Wisconsin have gained a job through the program's employment and training services, critics note that more than 69,000 people have enrolled in those services since April 2015, raising questions about how effective they are and whether the state ought to be requiring more people to use them. Selkowe says her clients report that the job centers skimp on the individualized assessments and career help they claim to provide. 

"We will get people out in the economy, unable to find work, and in some cases worse off because they don’t have the benefits. That’s the crux of the problem," says state Rep. Daniel Riemer, a Democrat on the House Committee on Public Benefits Reform, who opposed the package of bills.

He notes that while statewide unemployment is at the lowest point in almost two decades, about a dozen counties still have large job shortages. Democrats like Riemer have also pointed to the price tag of the legislation, which is estimated to be about $90 million a year.

Nonetheless, more states are probably going to adopt ideas similar to what the Walker administration is pursuing. 

The state's Secretary of Children and Families, Eloise Anderson, is also the chair of the Secretaries Innovation Group (SIG), a national coalition of agency directors overseeing safety net programs under Republican governors. Some of the proposals in the Wisconsin Works for Everyone package, such as increasing the hourly work requirement, appear in statements and white papers by SIG and its members. 

Doug Besharov, a poverty researcher at the University of Maryland, says Wisconsin's welfare reform package is part of a national movement that will likely result in many state experiments over the next few years. 

"Somebody’s got to be first. The people who are first are sometimes modest in their ambition and sometimes very aggressive," he says. "You got a possibly somewhat aggressive one here. Is it too aggressive? You decide."

This appears in the Human Services newsletter. Subscribe for free.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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