Work Requirements Are a Step in the Wrong Direction for Wisconsin
Earlier this year Wisconsin’s legislature passed a series of bills that aim to reform the state’s welfare programs by adding work-related mandates, drug testing for public housing residents, and new asset limits for Food Share (the state’s food assistance program). Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislators who voted for these changes say they are needed to get more people to work, rather than to continue to rely on food assistance, Medicaid, and public housing. Unfortunately, these policies will only increase poverty and do little to help recipients move into jobs.
I have worked for much of my life to ensure that more struggling Wisconsinites, whether on welfare or not, land decent jobs and escape poverty. Our organization, Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, works to create and connect people with job opportunities and we support the goal of the state’s Food Share Employment and Training (FSET) program—to help Food Share participants obtain training and assistance to obtain wage-paying jobs.
Yet, we oppose most of the bills that Governor Walker and the Legislature rushed into law. They will likely be ineffective. They will definitely be costly: according to the independent Legislative Fiscal Bureau, an estimated $87 million per year. And they are needlessly burdensome. Staff and participants will be compelled to spend significant amounts of time assessing, testing, and documenting individuals’ status with little evidence that they will do anything to substantially increase employment and economic stability.
Only one outcome is clear. Fewer individuals will remain eligible for Food Share, Badger Care (Wisconsin’s Medicaid program), and public housing. Poverty will increase, even as taxpayers spend more on efforts to increase employment that have not even been evaluated.
The lack of evidence that existing work requirements actually move Food Share recipients into jobs is not rhetoric. Here are some numbers, representing cumulative statistics between April 1, 2015, and December 31, 2017, from the WI Department of Health Services website. Of the 148,537 individuals during that period who needed to meet the work requirement and were referred to FSET, 48 percent lost their Food Share benefits due to the time limits and related requirements. A much smaller percentage (36 percent) reported finding a job. But many Food Share recipients find work on their own – FSET program or no FSET program – in the normal course of events. How many did FSET, at great public expense, actually move into jobs who would otherwise have not found work? We have no idea.
Yet there are ways to invest the same $87 million that have been proven to have large positive impacts on employment and longer-term economic stability. For example, Wisconsin utilized funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in the aftermath of the recession to provide subsidized employment programs across the state. Thousands of unemployed adults, many getting Food Share benefits and Medicaid, found work in wage-paying jobs. A large share eventually moved into unsubsidized employment, mostly in the private sector. This Transitional Jobs effort, which operated statewide from 2011 to 2015, still exists but at a much smaller scale and only in certain parts of the state. The governor has supported it, and it continues to have bipartisan support in the legislature. Why not expand this effort?
Helping unemployed and underemployed adults reduce their reliance on Food Share and other welfare programs, as a result of obtaining wage-paying jobs, is a good idea. But the package of Wisconsin bills that rushed from press conference to passage in a matter of weeks is the wrong direction.
Other state policymakers should NOT follow Wisconsin’s lead. Instead they should emphasize policy reforms that meet real needs of low-income individuals and families, encourage good stewardship of scarce resources, and promote individual responsibility while recognizing that helping the unemployed to overcome significant obstacles in the labor market cannot be achieved simply by imposing work requirements.
Julie Kerksick is Senior Policy Advocate at Community Advocates Public Policy Institute in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.