Gov. Scott Walker wants parents who receive food stamps to work at least 80 hours per month to continue to receive full benefits.
Walker made the announcement Monday in appearances around the state promoting changes dubbed “Wisconsin Works for Everyone” that he plans to make to the state’s welfare programs.
One component would require parents with school-age children living at home to work to continue to receive full benefits through the state’s food stamp program known as FoodShare.
“There will be some critics out there ... who will say somehow this is an attack on the poor. I couldn’t disagree any more,” Walker said. “If you love your neighbor ... the best way to help your neighbor is to help them get back up on their feet again and control their own destiny.”
The proposal, to be included in Walker’s 2017-19 state budget, is to initially pilot the requirement for parents in counties that have yet to be determined, Walker said.
Statewide, about 7,300 households receiving benefits are currently reporting no income, Walker said.
But Walker may need permission from President Donald Trump or Congress to implement the rule.
Federal law exempts able-bodied adults caring for children from such work requirements, and Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor would seek federal waivers where needed.
Current state law requires able-bodied adults without dependent children to work or be seeking employment 80 hours per month to continue to receive FoodShare benefits. If a recipient does neither for three months, that person loses access to food stamps.
The governor’s office didn’t say in detail what would happen if a parent didn’t meet the requirement.
“Any sanctions for noncompliance would be partial, only affecting the noncompliant adult’s portion of the allotment,” according to the governor’s office.
FoodShare benefits are paid per household. It’s unclear how the sanctions would be implemented in a way that only the parent would be affected, but another Walker spokesman, Jack Jablonski, said more details would be included in the budget proposal.
David Lee, executive director of Feeding Wisconsin, an organization that advocates on behalf of food shelters and oversees a network of pantries in the state, said proposing to reduce benefits for adults in a family is tantamount to reducing benefits for the entire family.
Because more than 60 percent of FoodShare recipients are families with children, Lee said, “the proposed sanction will reduce the overall amount of food available for everybody in the family, including children.”
Scott Manley, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, praised Walker’s proposals, saying they eliminate incentives to not work.
“One of the biggest problems we routinely hear from our members is that the welfare system in our state and country creates a disincentive to work,” Manley said in a statement.
“Gov. Walker’s proposed reforms would actually incentivize work, while making sure our government is still providing a hand up to those in need.”
Democrats: Walker’s job record at fault
Democrats said Walker is partially to blame for families using FoodShare to buy groceries because of the governor’s track record on job creation.
“We must treat people with dignity and respect and provide them with real opportunities if we actually want to improve crisis-level poverty in Wisconsin communities and across our nation,” Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, said in a statement.
“I believe it is morally unfair and unjust to threaten reduced access to food and shelter for low-income families with children.”
Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, said Walker’s proposals make it easier for recipients of government assistance “to climb the economic ladder.”
“As I travel my district and speak to employers, I have heard stories of government-assistance recipients who will become worse off by taking a new job or pay increase,” Stroebel said in a statement. “Government assistance should (incentivize) — not penalize — full-time work.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, declined to comment on Walker’s FoodShare proposal specifically but said the overall package “is a good start at addressing welfare reform.”
Fitzgerald said he hopes Walker’s proposal “dovetails into what the Legislature has been working on for some time.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, also said he supports the changes.
Some getting jobs, many losing benefits
About 21,000 Wisconsin residents using food stamps have gained employment through state programs designed to connect recipients with jobs to meet the state’s work requirement, which began in April 2015.
But in that time, 64,000 FoodShare recipients have lost benefits after receiving three months of food stamps and not looking for nor gaining employment, according to Department of Health Services data released this month.
The average wage of participants in the jobs program is about $12 per hour in about a 33-hour workweek, making those participants still eligible for FoodShare benefits.
Walker also is seeking a waiver from the federal government to be able to test FoodShare recipients for drug use.
Lee said federal law already requires people to register for work unless they are exempt and has “fairly strict requirements for the many families participating in the program who are already working.”
Walker said in a Tweet on Monday that the package of changes to the state’s welfare programs would expand upon initiatives enacted by former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Thompson, who is traveling with Walker to make the program announcements, in 1997 started the state’s welfare-to-work program called Wisconsin Works, also known as W-2, which requires caregivers to work or get job training in exchange for a check and child care.
It replaced the conventional welfare program, which provided money to poor parents based on income and how many children they had.
Thompson’s program dramatically changed the state’s welfare approach, requiring people on welfare to be working or to look for work to continue to get state assistance, which became a model for other states seeking to change their welfare programs.