Poor families in Wisconsin will soon get kicked off of food stamps and evicted from their public housing under a package of laws passed Tuesday by the state Senate.
Gov. Scott Walker (R) pushed state lawmakers to double down on his previous tweaks to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other safety net systems. Taken together, the earlier changes and those passed Tuesday make Wisconsin a living experiment with very old conservative policy ideas. The changes are hard-hearted and soft-brained, a recipe for greater human misery masquerading as a plan to lift the destitute back toward dignity.
One bill ups existing work requirements for food stamps. Another sets humiliating new conditions for eligibility to live in public housing. Others set aside money to pay private companies that contract with the state if those companies can realize further savings.
Food stamps recipients are already required to work to receive the meager stipend SNAP provides. Though media coverage often portrays legislation like Wisconsin’s as a new corrective action, the truth is SNAP families already work. When unemployment reaches a crisis level in a given geographic area, state administrators are allowed to waive the federal requirement that able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) work or volunteer at least 20 hours per week. That flexibility is essential to the program’s ability to cushion recessions. If there are no jobs and a family that can’t find work loses food benefits, the program can’t do what it’s supposed to, and poor people will go hungry.
Walker has already stripped his state’s food aid system of that essential responsiveness to economic conditions. A law he signed in 2015 barred Wisconsin from ever waiving the work rules, regardless of unemployment levels. For every person who found a job that met that 2015 bill’s requirements, 3.5 food stamps recipients were kicked off of the program, according to the Journal-Sentinel.
That kind of lopsided outcome — three or four times as many people dumped into the gutter as lifted into the workforce — will be replicated under the additional changes adopted this week. One bill approved by the Senate Tuesday will increase the existing work requirement from 20 hours a week to 30.
Wisconsin’s newest tweaks to food stamps rules spotlight the deception inherent to conservative policy ideas on poverty. Even if you accept the premise that a hard-and-fast requirement to work helps move people toward self-sufficiency — which you shouldn’t, since requiring work does nothing to create job opportunities — it is absurd to think that raising the bar for qualifying work hours by 50 percent will do the same.
Someone who’s been able to find a part-time job would suddenly lose food stamps anyhow if their boss won’t schedule them for 10 more hours a week. Resetting the definition of an acceptable food stamps beneficiary to “someone clocking 30 hours a week” only narrows the eligibility pool. This is a plan to kick people off of food stamps, not to improve anyone’s quality of life.
Walker’s agenda will cost Wisconsin taxpayers $38 million a year to implement. The inevitable savings from kicking people off of anti-poverty programs will accrue to the U.S. Treasury, not his state. Benefits are covered entirely through federal dollars, with states paying only a share of the administrative costs of SNAP.
Other bills passed Tuesday go even further to restrict access to safety net systems. The state will impose an asset test for food stamps, barring anyone who owns a home appraised at more than $321,200 or whose car is worth $20,000. Like work rules, asset tests are an old idea long understood to depress quality of life without any positive impact on poverty. Several states have gone the other direction in recent years and abandoned old asset rules.
Walker’s policy package also extends the same logic he has used for food stamps to public housing. Wisconsin residents who live in subsidized housing would have to submit to drug tests and find paying work or be booted onto the street.
Walker got his votes, but under a cloud of undemocratic illegitimacy. The governor is holding two seats — one in the Senate and another in the Assembly — vacant throughout this year’s legislative session, seemingly for fear that anti-Republican sentiment would hand the two chairs to Democrats.
Republicans would still hold majorities in each chamber even if the two vacancies went blue, and Walker would probably still get to sign the same poverty-increasing package. But his defiance of state laws mandating special elections “as promptly as possible” casts the policy changes in a dim light.