Wisconsin welfare reform could be model for GOP

Wisconsin welfare reform could be model for GOP
© Greg Nash

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is a handful of votes away from implementing one of the most sweeping overhauls to a state welfare system in decades.

As President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency MORE and Republicans around the country begin contemplating entitlement reforms, Walker’s legislation could serve as a model, both in state capitals and in Congress.

“We are removing barriers to work, investing in job and skills training for the unemployed and underemployed, and expanding programs that incentivize work,” Walker said when he announced his Wisconsin Works for Everyone proposal. “We are making it easier for people to get a job and ensuring that everyone who wants a job can find one.”

Legislation that passed the state Assembly last week would require able-bodied parents of children to work or undergo training in order to receive benefits for more than three months. Recipients already subject to work requirements would have to work 30 hours a week, up from 20 hours under existing law.

The bills would also exclude from welfare programs anyone who owns a home valued above $321,000, or personal vehicles worth more than $20,000. They would create a $20 million fund to privatize welfare and training programs, put the photos of food stamp recipients on state-issued cards to combat fraud, and create individual health savings accounts for Medicaid recipients.

Republicans say the measures are needed to increase Wisconsin’s workforce and to fill jobs that would spur economic growth. 

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“We’re trying to get everybody and everybody into the workforce,” said state Rep. Scott Krug (R), a supporter of the welfare overhaul. “We’re down to 3 percent unemployment here in Wisconsin. It’s the lowest since 1990. But we still have thousands of jobs that are available.”

The measures now face votes in the Republican-controlled state Senate. Several of the bills were amended Tuesday, though major changes are not expected before the package of bills gets to Walker’s desk.

In the last two years, more than 25,000 Wisconsin residents have re-entered the workforce under welfare overhauls passed earlier in Walker’s tenure. Krug, who worked as a job developer in the state’s workforce training program before winning election to the Assembly, said the new reforms would save millions of dollars over time.

But opponents of the reform package say the new laws would kick thousands of needy families off government assistance programs. They say the work requirements do not take into account factors that might otherwise keep a welfare recipient out of the workforce.

“It’s going to create hunger in the Dairy State. More children, more families, more working people of low incomes are going to go without food,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Milwaukee Hunger Task Force. “Vilifying low-income people for needing assistance to put food on the table is just bad policy.”

Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said a statewide program would fail to adequately account for all of those receiving assistance. Some of those people might not be able to work, for reasons the state program does not fully grasp.

“Any time you mandate that in order to get food assist you have to do X, Y and Z, especially for 30 hours a week, you’re going to find people who can’t do it but the state hasn’t identified that they can’t do it,” Bolen said. “You just can’t screen them closely.”

The Wisconsin proposal includes more money for workforce training programs, something Tussler said was not the case in other states where Republican governors have proposed workforce overhauls.

Both proponents and opponents of the overhaul say they believe the Wisconsin plan will serve as a blueprint for other states looking to reform their welfare programs. Maine and Nebraska have already implemented similar plans, and Republican governors in other states have suggested welfare reform is on their agendas.

“You want to have a welfare system that’s compassionate, that gives assistance to those who need it, but welfare shouldn’t be a one-way handout,” said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity. “You don’t want to just be giving month after month of assistance without requiring anything for that assistance. It’s bad for the taxpayer and for the recipients.”

It is not an accident, observers say, that Walker is the governor taking the lead on the new overhauls. A quarter-century ago, Walker’s predecessor, Tommy Thompson, led state-level welfare reform that spurred and informed federal welfare reform signed into law by former President Clinton.

“We’re looking at a nation that’s interested in reforming welfare and looking really hard at the [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and seeing what its purpose in supporting families truly is. Wisconsin has been consistently viewed as being a leader in welfare reform,” Tussler said. “We are living in a state where we are at war against low-income people.”

President Trump has voiced support for overhauling federal welfare programs. At a Cabinet meeting in October, Trump highlighted welfare as an opportunity for spending cuts.

“One thing we’re going to be looking at very strongly is welfare reform. That’s becoming a very, very big subject, and people are taking advantage of the system,” Trump said in October. “It’s going to be a very big topic under this administration, and it started already.  And we have a lot of recommendations that we’re going to be making, and you’ll be hearing about them very shortly.”

In December, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanElection Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls On The Money: Midterms to shake up House finance panel | Chamber chief says US not in trade war | Mulvaney moving CFPB unit out of DC | Conservatives frustrated over big spending bills Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? MORE (R-Wis.) said he wanted to use the fast-track reconciliation process to tackle entitlement reform, with a special focus on work- and career-based education.

“We want to smooth the path from welfare to work, pull people out of poverty, pull people out of welfare,” Ryan said.

Details have yet to be made public. But the Trump administration has already loosened some rules governing work requirements in other federal programs. 

“We’re seeing increases in flexibility around the rules of this program that we’ve never seen before. This is stuff that never would have been okay before,” Tussler said.