Wisconsin governor pushes welfare overhaul

MADISON - With unemployment low and a tough election looming, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called Thursday for a special legislative session to overhaul the state's welfare programs. The GOP governor is pushing for a series of welfare bills, inclu...

We are part of The Trust Project.


MADISON - With unemployment low and a tough election looming, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called Thursday for a special legislative session to overhaul the state's welfare programs.

The GOP governor is pushing for a series of welfare bills, including requiring able-bodied parents of children on food stamps to work or get training to receive more than three months of benefits and increasing the existing work requirement for all able-bodied adults from 20 hours a week to 30.

The existing requirement - offered by Walker in 2013 - has led so far to about 3.5 recipients losing benefits for every one who secured a job through the program. It's not known whether the recipients who lost benefits found jobs later.

The push comes before Walker's annual "state of the state" speech on Wednesday and just two days after his party was stunned by a special election loss in a western Wisconsin Senate district.


“With more people working in Wisconsin than ever before, we can’t afford to have anyone on the sidelines: we need everyone in the game,” Walker said in a statement. “We want to remove barriers to work and make it easier to get a job, while making sure public assistance is available for those who truly need it."

Walker has referred to Tuesday's loss in Wisconsin's 10th Senate District as "wake-up call for Republicans" and this week the governor has pushed aggressively to remind his voters about his records and goals. He and GOP lawmakers don't have much time to pass bills to do that - there are only about two months remaining in the legislative session.

Republicans say these proposals would make individuals more self-sufficient and help employers find workers at a time when the state unemployment rate is at 3%. Children would still get food stamps even if their parents don't, they say.

Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse say these proposals are difficult to implement and potentially cost state taxpayers more money than they save. Taking parents' food stamps will lower the household's income and have an inevitable effect on their kids, they said.

"After Tuesday’s results, he’s clearly trying to fire up his base. It’s sad and desperate that he thinks the best way to win re-election is to go after struggling families who are trying to get ahead," Shilling said.

The series of proposals did contain one bill that might win bipartisan support - a measure to allow low-income workers to collect Earned Income Tax Credit money on a monthly rather than a yearly basis. That proposal would require approval from the federal Internal Revenue Service in addition to state lawmakers.

The other bills deal in part with the food stamp program known as FoodShare, in which federal taxpayers pay for benefits and the state helps pay for administrative costs.

The changes would require parents with children between the ages of 6 and 18 to meet food stamp work requirements or lose benefits after three months. As of last year, there were 7,300 such households with no income in Wisconsin that might be affected by this proposal.


Lawmakers approved a pilot work requirement for FoodShare parents last summer as part of Walker's budget bill but dropped the governor's proposal to expand the pilot statewide by January 2020. Under the new proposal, the requirement would take effect in October 2019.

The state's existing training requirements for childless adults cost the state roughly $33 million in state money over two years and have led to 24,420 able-bodied FoodShare participants finding work through the program and 86,000 residents losing their federally funded benefits.

Some of those who lost benefits likely went on to get jobs outside the program but it's not possible to track that.

The measure also would:

  • Increase the work or training requirement for all these FoodShare participants from 20 hours a week to 30 hours. That would require about 130 hours of work a month for benefits from the program, which average about $212 per household.
  • Require pay-for-performance standards in the state's contracts with private groups that help run the state's FoodShare and separate Welfare to Work, or W-2, programs.
  • Put asset limits on FoodShare and W-2 programs to exclude people with homes valued at more than $321,200 and personal vehicles worth more than $20,000.
  • Create an up to $20 million fund to pay private contractors doing welfare, corrections and training contracts. The state could use the money to pay vendors for reaching big cost savings or improvements in performance.
  • Create health savings accounts for Medicaid recipients.
  • Put recipients' photos on FoodShare cards as a way to cut down on fraud.
  • Implement work requirements and drug testing for public housing programs.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he wanted to pass all the bills through his house by February and get more people into the workforce.
"If you want to find a job, there's no shortage of jobs available to find," Vos said.

What to read next
Forum Communications Company recently asked subscribers to complete a reader survey. Those who participated were automatically entered for a chance to win a $250 prize. Seven lucky winners were drawn at random from all of the eligible entries. Read more to find out who won.