In just three months, 15,000 people in Wisconsin have already lost food stamps thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) decision to enforce full work requirements for the program in Milwaukee despite economic conditions dire enough to trigger a federal reprieve.
Walker’s administration made the policy change in April. Since then, anyone deemed to be an able-bodied adult with no dependents to care for must prove they are working or participating in job training programs for at least 20 hours per week. Failing to meet that standard means losing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits after three months.
The 15,000 bumped from the rolls from May to July is only half the number the state predicts will ultimately lose food stamps because of the move.
The 20-hour weekly work requirement is typically waived when economic conditions are too tight. Since making people hungrier doesn’t create jobs where none exist, the federal government alerts states each year to the areas within their borders where the work rules can be suspended. Other linkages between SNAP enrollment and a person’s willingness to work a job if offered one remain in place, but the hard-and-fast hourly rule is waived.
Unless a governor decides not to heed the federal economists who study local labor markets, as Walker did here and numerous other state leaders – most Republican – have done in the past few years. In Wisconsin, about 60,000 of the state’s nearly 800,000 SNAP recipients were expected to be subject to the new rules.
There are 14 counties in Wisconsin where the labor market is too weak for the federal government to enforce the requirements. Walker declined to except those counties when his administration reinstated the stiffer rules, leaving food stamps recipients to contend with work rules in local economies where work is too hard to find.
The 14 counties contain roughly a quarter of the state’s 5.8 million overall population, but more than half of Wisconsin’s non-white population. Mostly that’s because three of the state’s most ethnically diverse population centers – Milwaukee, Racine, and Beloit – all qualify as “Labor Surplus Areas” for fiscal year 2016. The additional burdens of Walker’s food stamps decision are therefore falling on about one in four of his citizens, but one of every two people of color in his state.
Sherrie Tussler heads the Hunger Task Force, a Milwaukee group that distributes food donations to food banks and shelters. Walker’s move “will bankrupt our food banks” as impoverished people lose access to a modest food stipend, Tussler told the Wisconsin State Journal.
There is supposed to be an escape valve for the pressure on anti-hunger networks that states create by imposing work rules in places where federal bean-counters believe they are untenable. Participation in a job training program can stand in for payroll employment to fulfill the requirement.
But that valve often fails to rescue people who search for jobs that don’t exist. Few states actually have sufficient slots available in job training programs to satisfy the demand for those slots from people who can’t find work, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Beneficiaries who are denied entry into a program that’s over capacity still lose their benefits when the three-month clock runs out.
In Wisconsin, unemployed food stamps recipients who don’t have a disability or a dependent are automatically enrolled in the state’s SNAP Employment and Training program. But getting SNAP E&T programs right is hard and expensive, and true success at launching people toward self-sufficiency is rare.
In Milwaukee County, only one in every 14 childless able-bodied adults who’s enrolled in the state training system has actually found a job through it. The impact of Walker’s move there “will result in wide scale shortages in Milwaukee [food banks],” Tussler wrote to the governor in October.