Scott Walker Is Making It Harder to Receive Welfare in Wisconsin. Will This Become a Nationwide Blueprint?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on February 23, 2017. (Photo: Gage Skidmore).Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on February 23, 2017. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed Act 10, an infamous piece of legislation that was later passed by the state’s legislature. The bill effectively destroyed collective bargaining rights for most public workers, while slashing pay and benefits.

It’s impossible to deny the impact of Act 10, not just within Wisconsin — where the median salary for teachers dropped almost 3 percent in 5 years, and where median benefits declined by almost 19 percent — but throughout the entire country. Walker’s attack on the public sector provided a blueprint for other right-wing states looking to bust their public unions. Seven years later, 15 states have passed legislation that cuts back collective bargaining.

Walker is now set to sign a number of welfare reform bills. His administration calls the package of bills “Wisconsin Works For Everyone.” Like Act 10, the bills could provide a model for other states with right-wing governments. The new laws, which have already made their way through Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature, would be the strictest in the country and make it harder for low-income individuals to acquire food stamps, child care subsidies, health insurance and housing assistance.

Wisconsin’s “Welfare Reform”

Wisconsin wants to require all parents that it deems “able-bodied” to work in order to receive any benefits for more than three months. It also wants to bump the weekly work requirement for individuals using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from 20 hours a week to 30 hours a week. Both of these proposals will require approval from the US Department of Agriculture, but the bills also include a number of policies that don’t need approval to kick in. Under “Wisconsin Works For Everyone,” anyone who lives in a house valued over $321,000 or drives a car worth more than $20,000, would be prohibited from collecting welfare. Medicaid coverage would also be blocked for parents who are behind on child-support payments, and housing assistance recipients will be forced to undergo drug tests. This flurry of state legislation comes on the heels of a much-maligned Trump administration proposal to replace over 40 percent of SNAP benefits with food boxes.

It also remains to be seen whether Walker will be able to proceed with another aspect of the “Wisconsin Works for Everyone” plan: drug-testing SNAP recipients. Walker has been denied permission to require drug tests for SNAP recipients before; he sued the USDA in 2015 after the agency informed him that they wouldn’t allow it. Walker’s lawsuit was thrown out of court because his administration failed to fill out the necessary waiver, but he wrote the Trump administration in December 2016 asking for permission to implement the requirement. A year later, the USDA promised “increased cooperation” for states looking to implement their own specific SNAP policies, a move that Walker apparently views as a go-ahead to pursue drug testing.

“This reform package is based on the fundamental principle that work is dignifying and connects individuals to society and its values,” said the governor’s office in a statement.

It’s Expensive to Crack Down on Poor People

Although conservatives frequently embrace welfare reform policies under the pretext that money will be saved, Wisconsin’s efforts will not be cheap. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review estimates that the legislation will cost the state’s taxpayers about $37.9 million and federal taxpayers around $35.5 million. This money would be needed to cover a number of operating costs, from hiring additional state staff to implementing new security features. These numbers also don’t include a projected $21.7 million cost for one-time updates to the system or the fund that Walker has proposed to pay out private contractors helping to run it; that number could be as high as $20 million.

Vicky Selkowe is a legislative director at Legal Action of Wisconsin, a group that helps provide legal services for low-income residents of the state. She told Truthout that not only is Walker making life worse for poor people in the state, he is also neglecting a prime opportunity to make it better. “Our clients need access to meaningful job training and education, reliable transportation, and help paying for quality child care,” said Selkowe. “These bills represent a missed opportunity: The legislature could have prioritized investments in proven solutions that will help low-income people get out of poverty, and instead has chosen to spend millions of dollars on policies that bloat the bureaucracy, line the pockets of private contractors, and keep families stuck in dead-end jobs that leave them impoverished. These policies will deprive our clients of the most essential basic needs — food, health care and shelter — and further stigmatize our state’s most vulnerable residents.”

Truthout contacted Governor Walker’s office for a comment on these costs, but its staff did not respond by the time this article was scheduled to run.

Will Walker’s Plan Go National?

Critics and supporters of Wisconsin’s new policies agree that they could have implications outside of the state, especially now that Walker’s politics are reflected in the White House. In fact, in many ways Wisconsin’s new policies are simply the biggest part of a national wave that has already begun. Republicans point to Maine and Kansas as examples of states where the economy has supposedly been improved via food stamp work requirements. Both states began imposing a time limit on individuals receiving food stamps. One report, from a right-wing think tank, pointed to a 75 percent decrease in childless, able-bodied adults receiving SNAP benefits in Kansas. It also showed that 60 percent of the people kicked off welfare had increased their income. A Maine Department of Health and Human Services report found that the income of individuals booted from welfare went up by 114 percent.

Supporters of these policies cite the reductions as proof that they’re effectively putting people back to work. However, critics of such efforts point out that these numbers are deceptive, as they don’t account for the fact that many SNAP recipients already have jobs and that many others would have eventually found work, taking themselves off the rolls before the state could kick them off. In other words, many of the changes that are attributed to the state’s welfare policies would have occurred anyway. A 2016 report put out by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, concluded, “Despite their claims, the reports about the experience in Kansas and Maine do not provide persuasive evidence that reimposing the SNAP three-month time limit increases work effort or well-being among childless adults. Policymakers should not draw conclusions about the time limit based on these faulty assessments of the data.”

Similarly, data concerning drug testing for welfare recipients shows that applicants test positive at a lower rate than the general population does.

However, as with criticisms of work requirements, the facts that call drug testing into question haven’t slowed down the push to implement these kinds of policies. Earlier this year, Vermont’s House Minority Leader proposed a bill that would allow drug testing for individuals receiving financial assistance. A similar bill just cleared Iowa’s Senate Labor Committee. “There is a culture that wants to maintain all the money that is being plowed into these programs and it keeps people on the system that shouldn’t be,” declared Republican State Sen. Jason Schultz after the bill was proposed. Much like Wisconsin’s plan, the legislation would be pricey: the Iowa Department of Human Services estimates that it would cost over $100 million to implement.

“This bill is full of a lot of crap,” said Democratic State Sen. Bill Dotzler during a senate debate on the legislation. “Why bring it forward unless there’s some political motivation?”

There have also been efforts to speed the process along at a national level. The welfare reform act of 1996 created a system where states can apply to waive their work requirement if they’re experiencing high rates of unemployment or limited job availability. Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves has introduced a federal bill that would end all work requirement waivers and cut back the amount of time individuals can receive benefits. It has 97 cosponsors.

If Wisconsin’s reforms go national, it wouldn’t be the first time that the state has helped drive the country’s welfare laws. Tommy Thompson, the GOP governor of the state from 1987-2001, began experimenting with policies like work requirements and time limits after a backlash against welfare developed under Reagan. Wisconsin’s welfare caseloads dropped by 93 percent, and Thompson’s efforts were hailed as the country’s most successful welfare program. Thompson’s changes helped inspire Bill Clinton, who ran on a pledge to “end welfare as we know it” and ultimately passed The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, which had a vast impact on poor people, particularly poor African Americans.

“The starkest example of the many racist and anti-poor measures directed at African Americans and passed during [Clinton’s] administration was the 1996 welfare reform bill, which transformed welfare from an exclusive and unequal cash assistance system that stigmatized its recipients into one that actually criminalized them,” wrote the historian Premilla Nadasen in 2016.

In February, after the state legislature approved Walker’s overhaul, he issued a statement. “We believe public assistance should be a trampoline, not a hammock,” it read. “These reforms will help people move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity that comes from work.”

Sherrie Tussler, the executive director of Wisconsin’s Hunger Task Force told Truthout that, contrary to Walker’s claims, the moves are a thinly veiled attack on the poor. “Governor Walker has created a platform of punishment for the poor in our state,” said Tussler. “Using hunger as a motivator, he plans to force people into unpaid work and low-wage jobs. Wisconsin produces enough food to feed all of its residents, but according to Walker, some of them simply don’t deserve access to food as a basic right.”