The student news site of the University of WI - Eau Claire

Wisconsin lawmakers approve Gov. Walker’s welfare reform

March 8, 2018

The Wisconsin State Assembly passed nine welfare reform bills in February that overhaul the state’s current welfare programs.

Ultimately, these changes make it harder for low-income people to obtain and remain eligible for government funded food stamps, health insurance, child care and housing subsidies.

Nine bills passed by the Wisconsin State Assembly on welfare reform await Gov. Walker’s signature. © 2018 Michael Roemer

Altoona resident, Sarah Barton has been using the food share program for over three years to help offset the cost of supporting three people. Placing restrictions on welfare programs, Barton said, will hurt families with children.

“If I didn’t have two kids to support I wouldn’t use food share because I can feed myself,” Barton said. “I just need to make sure my children are taken care of.”

Barton receives housing and medical support from the government as well, and said that in the past her benefits have been taken away after picking up extra shifts to make ends meet.

“I worked two jobs to help pay my bills and once I fell behind,” Barton said. “I started picking up extra shifts at work and I found out that disqualified me from getting it.”

Food Share by the numbers

More than 10,000 households in Eau Claire County received food share benefits last year, according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Lisa Struck, Eau Claire’s economic support consortium manager, said that number is closer to 18,000 after accounting for homes with children and other dependents.

“We have 18,980 recipients receiving assistance in Eau Claire County,” Struck said,  “and about half of those recipients are receiving both food share and medical assistance.”

According to USDA, the number of households receiving food stamps has fallen almost 12 percent since the national high of 47.8 million people in 2013.

A legislation revamp

House Republicans separately approved a $12 million program to require food stamp recipients to purchase healthy food, as reported by the Associated Press.

Struck says that this bill would be hard to administer mainly because of the cost of healthier food. There are also current restrictions placed on hot or ready-made food.

“(Food share) is really meant for nutrition, so you can’t buy cleaning supplies, you can’t buy paper products, you can’t buy alcohol or tobacco, or diapers,” Struck said. “For example I can’t go to Kwik Trip and get one of those prepared, heated sandwiches, but I could buy one of their uncooked pizzas.”

Other new laws address work requirements for recipients, or increasing the amount of hours able-bodied adults must work each week from 20 to 30 hours in order to qualify for food stamps. This is part of a program started last summer by Gov. Scott Walker. The program is supposed to take effect statewide in 2020, but this requirement is set for 2019.

The new law, which takes effect Oct. 19, will require adults with school-age children to meet work or training requirements by the first three months or risk losing the benefits.

As of last year, Struck said there were 7,300 households with no income in Wisconsin.

That work requirement law would require federal approval from the USDA.

Laws that would not require federal approval include:

Award bonuses based on performance standards to privately contracted companies that help run the state’s food share and separate Welfare to Work, or W-2, programs;

Prevent households with a home worth more than $334,000 or a vehicle worth over $20,000 from receiving benefits;

Restrict noncustodial parents behind on child support payments from receiving benefits;

Require recipients of federal housing assistance who are unemployed or underemployed to undergo drug testing;

Administer food share card with photo of recipient to cut down on fraud.

Struck says that Photo IDs would be almost impossible because each household is given one card.

“Say a family of four applies for food share, they would get an EBT card, which is like a debit card,” Struck said. “And that one card would be used for the whole family.”

Commentary from Washington

There have also been talks on the national level to replace the food share program with a “blue apron” style delivery service.

The proposal started from a line in the White House’s 2019 budget that would cut the cost of the food share program in half. Recipients of these food boxes would receive items such as shelf stable milk, peanut butter and locally-grown produce.

How this style of food delivery service would be implemented is yet to be addressed by the Trump administration.

In February, Amazon started delivering Whole Foods to customers with its subscription service. This service is available in Austin, Texas; Cincinnati, Ohio; Dallas, Texas and Virginia Beach, Virginia.

While cities have resources available to make these changes, rural communities may have a difficult time with the proposed changes, which is why the USDA says the states should have flexibility with how they administer the proposed changes, as reported in Politico.

Struck said she does not see that program having any momentum. Many of these changes would have to be approved at a national level and would take years to implement.

“There is no way that we would be able to get the food box plan off the ground,” Struck said.

Barton has similar feelings about the food box plan.

“I think the food box program is a bad idea,” Barton said. “What if an adult or a child had an allergy or is vegan or even gluten free? How will they be able to get that specific food to that family in a box? One of my children has a peanut allergy and we are a peanut-free house, so I feel like I should have control over what I buy.”

At the moment, Struck says the food box program doesn’t seem likely. But, it shows legislators in Washington are looking at ways to change the program.

While the changes may seem new to most in Wisconsin, Struck said that the changes have been seen under previous administrations, and even previously in Wisconsin.

“Some of this actually has some steam, like from 20 to 30 hours for adults with kids, and income limits,” Struck said. “A lot of this is really coming full circle from what was done in the past.”

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