Work is the best policy for poverty

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The Badger State has a revered work ethic. After all, it is named for the lead miners of the 1830s who, like their furry namesakes, burrowed into the hillsides to live and work during the harsh Midwestern winters. This virtue explains why Wisconsin led the nation in promoting work as a way out of poverty during the welfare reforms of the 1990s. It also explains why, to this day, it has unusually high workforce participation rates and low unemployment and poverty rates relative to the rest of the nation.

The people of Wisconsin value hard work and, like most Americans, they see employment as a path to a prosperous life. Regrettably, for policies toward low income families, some actions of Governor Tony Evers have undermined this fundamental value. State leaders must refocus policies on employment to reinforce work as the surest pathway out of poverty.

States rightly have a say in how federal programs are administered to their residents. Since work offers economic security for most Americans, states are wise to enact policies that focus on employment. In a recent report for the Badger Institute, however, I have found that Wisconsin is falling short. When it comes to three of the largest cash assistance federal programs for poverty, which are the earned income tax credit, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, Evers has returned to the failed policies of the past.

After years of a strong approach to poverty, Evers took two major steps to weaken aspects of the strategy of Wisconsin. He vetoed training money to avoid implementing a law requiring parents of school age children who receive food aid to work or participate in job training, basically depriving them of crucial employment skills and education services. The state also asked for, and received across six counties and 10 tribal areas, a waiver to a federal law requiring able individuals without children who receive food aid to either work or participate in job training to receive their benefits.

Other signs also reflect the intent of the governor to weaken the focus on work. The administration has yet to implement a legislatively mandated time limit of four years on cash assistance programs for poor parents who are capable of working. It delayed implementation of requirements that Medicaid recipients capable of work without children either find jobs or participate in job training within four years of receiving their coverage. 

These actions are part of a national trend. Many blue state governors have delayed Medicaid work provisions, while 14 states have recently sued the federal government to weaken work expectations for some federal food aid recipients. Given that work is the most effective strategy to address poverty, these are troubling signs. Public data shows only 2 percent of Wisconsin adults who worked full time for the year in 2017 were poor.

Like those in other states, Wisconsin lawmakers have tools to resist such trends and deliver a strong message that work is essential for economic opportunity. They should increase the state earned income tax credit to low income working families and make it available to nonresident parents who pay child support. The state should also offer better employment and education services to cash assistance recipients and Medicaid that create stronger links between public government programs and education and training institutions, such as the Wisconsin Technical College System. 

At the same time, it is necessary for state policies to make clear that low income families that receive government benefits are expected to work. To this end, Evers should restore the job training funding that he vetoed last year and reinstate work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, while making clear the intent of the administration to help those low income struggling families find and sustain employment.

Like most low income people across the country, Wisconsin families want to work and be able to provide for themselves. But often poorly designed government policies and well intentioned politicians who view work as a punishment instead of an opportunity block the way. Low income families in Wisconsin deserve more effective policies than what the administration is offering. History shows that work, and its related supports, is the most effective strategy to address poverty. It is time for Evers, and governors like him across the country, to recognize and promote this basic reality.

Angela Rachidi served as a deputy commissioner for the New York City Department of Social Services from 2007 to 2015. She is now a Rowe Scholar in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute and is author of the new Badger Institute report “Wisconsin’s Missing Rung.”

Tags Education Government Labor Policy Poverty Welfare Wisconsin Work

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