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Wisconsin to force parents to work for FoodShare, despite doubts about effectiveness

Dee J. Hall

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Jim McLaughlin is an instructor at Just Bakery, located in a one-story brick building on Madison’s East Side. McLaughlin, a burly man in a white apron, works for a program that partners with Dane County to help unemployed people earn college credit and certification as commercial bakers.

McLaughlin said the goal of Just Bakery is not necessarily to churn out more bakers. Instead, his mission is to train people to hold down a job.

“Our goal is to have people who can come to work and be a contributing member of the workplace on day one,” he said during a recent tour of the facility as trainees scooped and hand-pressed almond-flavored sugar cookies onto giant baking sheets.

For some, participation has another important benefit: It qualifies them to keep receiving government food assistance.

Beginning next year, programs like Just Bakery will increasingly be in demand as parents of children ages 6 and above in Wisconsin will be added to the list of able-bodied recipients ages 18 through 49 required to train for a job or work to earn FoodShare benefits. Currently, parents with dependents are exempt from the requirement.

And the required number of hours for Wisconsin FoodShare recipients will increase from 20 hours a week to 30, pending approval from the federal government. Children would retain their benefits, but parents who fail to meet the new requirements would not.

The expansion is expected to double the cost of the program. Adding able-bodied parents to the work requirement is estimated to cost an additional $54.7 million a year, not including $5.8 million in startup costs. Currently, the program costs about $49.5 million a year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Wisconsin is one of 17 states that have fully implemented a federal work and training requirement to receive food assistance. The rest of the states either have a partial or full waiver of the requirement, which was enacted in 1996.

Congressional Republicans are seeking to prompt more states to enforce those work requirements and, in some ways, go beyond what Wisconsin plans to do. The House on June 21 passed the 2018 Farm Bill on a narrow, largely party-line vote with all Democrats opposed.

It would expand the 20-hour-a-week national requirement for able-bodied recipients to include parents of school-age children and those up to age 60. The Senate version does not contain the work requirement changes, and the two houses will need to work out the differences before a Sept. 30 deadline.

Wisconsin’s program controversial

Is Wisconsin’s program working? Gov. Scott Walker says yes.

“Our investment in the FoodShare Employment and Training (FSET) program is an investment in our people, so that everyone who wants a good job, can get a good job, regardless of challenges in their present or their past,” Walker said in a statement in mid-June.

Advocates for the poor have argued that Wisconsin’s FoodShare work requirement — reinstated in 2015 for the first time since 2002 — has hurt more people than it has helped.

As of March 31, state Department of Health Services figures show 27,004 people had obtained jobs through FSET since 2015. During the same time period, recipients lost food assistance 91,109 times for failing to meet work or training requirements. DHS spokeswoman Julie Lund said some of those recipients have regained benefits by qualifying for exemptions through volunteering,  becoming pregnant or having a child move into their home.

At a cost of $4,000 a person, the 16-week Just Bakery program run by the nonprofit Madison-area Urban Ministry is far more expensive than providing food assistance. According to the USDA, the average FoodShare recipient in Wisconsin gets $105.63 per month.

Work requirements expand

Since 2015, able-bodied FoodShare recipients in Wisconsin ages 18-49 who have no minor children at home have been required to work, search for jobs or engage in occupational training at least 20 hours a week or lose their benefits after three months.

Starting Oct. 1, 2019, this requirement will extend to parents with children ages 6 and above. And all able-bodied recipients ages 18-49, including parents with school-age children at home, will be required to spend at least 30 hours a week at job-related activities to maintain their benefits.nt or having a child move into their home.

FSET is open to all FoodShare recipients regardless of whether they are subject to the work requirement.

Overall, Wisconsin’s FoodShare program cost $867 million in 2017, paying benefits to about 682,000 people each month — a number that has steadily decreased in recent years as the state and national economies have rebounded.

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