Scott Walker plans major welfare overhaul in Wisconsin

Scott Walker plans major welfare overhaul in Wisconsin
© Greg Nash

Twenty years after a Republican governor of Wisconsin spearheaded an ambitious welfare reform package, the current governor is trying to build momentum for a new round of reforms.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) on Monday said he would ask the state’s Republican-led legislature to undertake one of the most aggressive welfare reform packages since a wave of new measures passed in the mid-1990s.

Walker’s plan, “Wisconsin Works for Everyone,” would impose new work requirements on both able-bodied adults with school-age children who receive state food assistance and those who receive housing assistance. Both work plans, which would be tested on a pilot basis, would require recipients to be employed for at least 80 hours per month, or to be enrolled in job training programs. Those who do not meet work requirements would see part of their benefits cut.

“We believe our public assistance programs should ask able-bodied adults to take steps toward self-sufficiency through work, while also providing comprehensive tools to help them get and keep a job,” Walker said Monday.

The Wisconsin Republican has made welfare reform a key element of his second term in office.

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“In 2017, we are going to push the federal government to allow Wisconsin to go even further, to be a leader once again on welfare reform,” Walker said last week during his State of the State address.

The plan proposed Monday would expand job training programs and employer resource networks for those who receive government aid. It would create an earned income tax credit specifically aimed at getting younger Wisconsinites into the workforce, and it would require existing business license requirements to be reviewed by a state panel in hopes of reducing red tape.

The proposals will be part of Walker’s budget he will send to the legislature next month.

Social service advocates said the plans would kick tens of thousands of people off state food stamp programs — and that Walker is pushing the bounds of federal law by proposing new work requirements.

“We think it’s illegal,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee. “Federal law, which is [Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program] law, doesn’t require work for anyone other than able-bodied childless people.”

Tom Evenson, Walker’s spokesman, said the governor would “aggressively” seek waivers from the Trump administration to allow the pilot program to proceed.

Tussler said more than 64,000 people had been removed from Wisconsin’s SNAP program, known as FoodShare, since Walker’s administration implemented work requirements for childless recipients in April 2015. That number exceeds the amount of people who have actually gotten jobs through training and placement programs.

Walker’s office said his proposal would significantly expand job training and placement programs for the unemployed and the underemployed, those who are incarcerated and parents who do not have custody of their children, though specific dollar figures were not immediately released. Evenson said more details would be presented when Walker submits his budget to the legislature.

Other experts said expanding job training is critical to helping those on welfare lift themselves out of poverty — though identifying the right types of job training programs can be tricky.

“This is the kind of thing that is quite difficult, and government often does not do a great job,” said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to President George W. Bush. “It’s got to be a carefully tailored program.”

Walker announced the legislation alongside former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who led a group of Midwestern Republican governors in reforming welfare in 1996. Those reforms became the basis for President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBest-selling author jokes he knows 'what Pence must feel like' on book tour with Bill Clinton Bill Clinton blasts family separation: 'Children should not be bargaining chips' In memory of Charles Krauthammer, an American genius and dear friend MORE’s landmark welfare overhauls, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families system and job training programs.

Haskins said a number of other states are likely to try their own welfare reform efforts in the coming years. The last farm bill passed by Congress included money for work requirement pilot programs in 10 states, and eight other states — including Wisconsin — are running pilot programs to test the efficacy of new child support models.

The Clinton-era welfare reforms led to a precipitous drop in the number of Americans receiving government benefits. Government statistics show the number of people receiving TANF benefits dropped 75 percent between 1996 and 2014, the last year for which data is available.

“It filled up all of our homeless shelters,” Tussler said of the 1990s-era reforms. “These social reforms, they may sound like great ideas, but we’re actually experimenting on a class of people.”

Before abandoning his presidential campaign in 2015, Walker sued the Obama administration seeking permission to drug test those enrolled in the FoodShare program.

A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the suit in September 2016, writing that the state lacked standing because it had yet to implement the policy.

Federal law does not allow states to drug test those receiving food stamp benefits. But Walker, in a December letter to then-President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP lawmakers preparing to vote on bill allowing migrant children to be detained longer than 20 days: report Wasserman Schultz: Infants separated from their parents are in Florida immigrant shelters Ex-White House ethics chief: Sarah Sanders tweet violates ethics laws MORE, asked for new flexibility to require clean drug tests from food stamp recipients.

“Over and over again employers are telling us of their dramatic needs for people who are ready to work and able to pass a drug test,” Walker said in his address last week.

Through 11 months of 2016, Wisconsin’s FoodShare program had spent $838 million on supplemental benefits, the state Department of Health Services reported.

Food assistance spiked in Wisconsin in the years leading up to and following the great recession. In 2008, about 200,000 families were receiving food aid from the state; that number peaked in 2014, at more than 400,000 families, representing more than 719,000 individuals. About a third of those receiving aid live in Milwaukee and Milwaukee County.