Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Tens of Thousands Losing Food Stamps

Walker decision not to renew waivers on FoodShare time limits cut off their benefits.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Sep 6th, 2017 10:23 am
FoodShare recipients utilize the Marcia Coggs Center on 12th and Vliet. Photo by Sue Vliet.

FoodShare recipients utilize the Marcia Coggs Center on 12th and Vliet. Photo by Sue Vliet.

When Derek Osborne, 48, re-applied for FoodShare in spring 2014, he didn’t know he was no longer eligible for the food stamps program. Osborne was in the process of leaving Racine for school in Milwaukee when he found out.

“I went ahead and filled all the paperwork out. And, then … once that was all processed, they were like, ‘Oh, by the way, you’ve got to do this job search, and you’ve got to put 20 hours a week in looking for work to keep your food stamps,” Osborne said.

According to representatives of Milwaukee nonprofits, a decision by Gov. Scott Walker to not renew waivers on FoodShare time limits starting at the end of 2014 has caused tens of thousands of people in Milwaukee County, and other economically depressed areas around the state, to lose their benefits.

To qualify for a waiver an area must have a recent unemployment rate over 10 percent, a recent 24-month average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national unemployment rate or be designated as a Labor Surplus Area by the U.S. Department of Labor. According to Hunger Task Force Director of Advocacy Maureen Fitzgerald, 10 counties and three municipalities, including Milwaukee, are eligible for the waivers but are unable to take advantage of them because of Walker’s decision.

The federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, a Clinton-era welfare reform, requires that able-bodied adults without dependent children must work, volunteer or report for work training at least 20 hours per week. They are defined as anyone between 18 and 50, who is legally able to work and is not pregnant or living with a child under 18 who they support. Exemptions include anyone attending an institution of higher education, receiving unemployment benefits and individuals who are disabled or participating in an alcohol or drug abuse treatment or rehabilitation program.

For those who don’t meet these requirements, SNAP (FoodShare) benefits are limited to three months of benefits every three years. Those time limits were suspended nationwide in 2009 because of high unemployment resulting from the Great Recession.

Police Ambassador Shaquirra Johnson bags pasta in the Our Savior’s Lutheran Church food pantry. Photo by Devi Shastri.

Police Ambassador Shaquirra Johnson bags pasta in the Our Savior’s Lutheran Church food pantry. Photo by Devi Shastri.

A U.S. Army veteran, Osborne suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. However, he is considered only 30 percent disabled by a panel of psychiatrists. Individuals who are less than 50 percent disabled are still considered able to work. Despite going to school at MATC to be a dietary technician — Osborne already has a degree in culinary arts — he wasn’t taking enough credits to qualify for the higher-education exemption. He has past substance abuse issues, which keep him from working in a stressful kitchen environment, but is not currently in treatment.

Osborne, who lives near 37th Street and Oklahoma Avenue, said he misses the $200 a month he got through FoodShare, which helped him survive on meager benefits while in school. He’s been to St. John’s Lutheran Church, 5500 W. Greenfield Ave., which holds a food pantry every Tuesday for veterans, but Osborne, who doesn’t own a car, said the trip is too far so he hasn’t been back recently.

“My refrigerator’s bare right now — it’s not like it used to be,” Osborne said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

According to Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) data, starting in January 2010, the number of monthly FoodShare recipients in Milwaukee County began a steady increase, from just over 200,000 to a peak of 291,119 in October 2013. Numbers remained steady during 2014, which began and ended with about 285,000 people using food benefits per month. But, by the beginning of 2015, numbers started to fall off; in December of that year only 257,456 were enrolled in Milwaukee County. As of May 2017, the number was 240,685.

Elizabeth Goodsitt, communication specialist at DHS, explained the drop by noting that FoodShare is considered a “lag economic indicator,” which means it often mirrors unemployment numbers on a delayed basis. She added, “As the economy improves and unemployment rates drop, the FoodShare enrollment rates will also decrease.”

Goodsitt declined to answer additional questions about whether suspending the time- limit waiver had an effect.

The unemployment rate statewide is below 4 percent, the lowest it’s been in more than 15 years. However, a recent report by the nonpartisan Center for Wisconsin Strategy notes the state lags in wage and private-sector job growth and union representation. According to the report, Wisconsin’s middle class has continued to decline as African-American unemployment has remained steady at 11 percent, 2.9 times the rate for whites.

In April 2016, more than 25 health, food and worker organizations — including the Hunger Task ForcePublic Policy Institute and 9to5 — signed onto a letter calling on Walker to reinstate the waiver in order to protect people in eligible areas from the “harmful” effects of the time limits.

“This is a choice that the state is making that the state doesn’t have to make,” said Michael Bare, research and program coordinator at the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute. “To leave people hungry … doesn’t make sense.”

“The assumption is that the folks who are on FoodShare are, somehow, lazy or need some kind of work requirement in order to eat,” said 9to5’s state director for Wisconsin Astar Herndon. “It just perpetuates this level of disparity.”

Walker’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Autumn Morgan, an operations manager at ResCare, which contracts with the state to administer the FoodShare Employment and Training (FSET) program, also did not respond to calls and voicemails requesting an interview.

Herndon and Fitzgerald also questioned whether individuals who are not working and instead must enroll in FSET are receiving training that will provide them the opportunity to secure family-supporting employment, or whether people are simply being forced into low-wage jobs.

Herndon said tying food to work is “punitive,” particularly when the state is not taking proactive measures to make the economy healthy, pointing to a minimum wage that “is not life-sustaining.”

“Cutting people off from eating is taking away their humanity,” she said. “You’re saying, ‘You’re not worth living enough to eat.’”

Fitzgerald said, “As a state, we need to decide: are we going to help our neighbor when our neighbor’s in need?”

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on eighteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

10 thoughts on “Tens of Thousands Losing Food Stamps”

  1. AG says:

    I don’t follow… If you’re able to work, health/mental health issues aren’t holding you back, you don’t have dependents to take care of, you’re not taking 2 or more classes in school, you’re not in a substance abuse program… what is holding you back from working, volunteering, going to school, or looking for a job for 3 or 4 hours a day?

    I think this system sounds more than fair. Unless someone can give a good example of when this wouldn’t work?

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    That’s a whole lot of “no comment” from state agencies. Makes you wonder why they won’t talk on the record.

  3. Sebastian Klay says:

    AG is exactly right. No excuses and excuse don’t feed you. Get to work y’all

  4. AG says:

    Disappointed no one was willing or able to provide a good counter argument. I guess this really was a good decision by the administration.

  5. We have to remember, you have to PAY to take classes .You have to wait months and months to get into a substance abuse program as well- how do you eat while you wait? I have a friend who has gone to the only 4 clinics that will accept you with no insurance and is still waiting to get in- its been 7 months. I did research , called about 20 substance abuse drs. /clinics in our area and 1 called back- to tell us there was an opening and they would call us back= we are still waiting for said call. Its preposterous. How can we have so much = we throw so much away- yet we cannot feed people. PEOPLE. Seems we care more about animals sometimes. There’s so much we can do , but we make excuses .Do not judge these people- you have NO idea what is happening in their lives. And there are NOT very many resources. We hurry to help in other areas of the country- to feel like heros, but we don’t even help our communities? How insane.

  6. Vincent Hanna says:

    I don’t know how it’s good that no one is willing to defend the decision.

  7. AG says:

    Monica, thank you for the personal example, I can tell you are very passionate. And let us be clear, this isn’t about judgement… all who need these benefits should receive them. The important term here is “need” and many people seem to have a pretty loose definition of need.

    Your example is more alarming to me in the lack of resources for drug abuse treatment. That doesn’t point to a need for more foodshare benefits, but for drug/addiction treatment. This is exactly why this type of conversation is necessary. If your friend suffers from addiction that keeps them from working, but they can’t get into treatment, and thus don’t qualify for benefits… that is a problem. Making sure they can get onto Badgercare and that we have enough program spots available for treatment is likely the only way to get out of that hole. Unless they have special support around them. Perhaps being on a waiting list for a drug treatment program could change things? Is your friend able to do volunteer work or does the addiction make that untenable?

    The whole reason for this means testing is so that we’re not just treating the symptom but instead looking at the root cause. Now that we identified one that wasn’t included in the program requirements, are there any others?

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    Hunger Task Force, people on the front lines of this issue, has a message for certain people:

    “If after reading all of this, you are feeling judgmental about the poor because you have seen something or heard some story repeated that vilifies a person you feel entitled to judge—keep it to yourself. Find a quiet place to reconsider your negativity and then find a later time to learn about what you don’t know. Tens of thousands of people right here in Wisconsin are suffering and you can do something to help. Telling someone to get a job when there is no job is ignorant. Intentionally creating hunger is anti-Wisconsin.”

  9. DK says:

    Some people are incapacitated by the traumatic effects of poverty and can’t hold down a job. You can’t just set up employment centers and offer training or resume help. People with these issues need a lot more intensive assistance to get and maintain a job and create a stable life. The Journal Sentinel had an excellent series on the multi-generational issues some parts of Milwaukee have experienced:

  10. AG says:

    DK, I am absolutely sure that there are some who are so traumatized that they can’t work… but that is not the majority. The similar piece put out today doesn’t give this argument, they talk about “forced work at $12/hr and the horrors of volunteerism. That is certainly not the example the article gives.

    But even for those people, it seems to me that if we just wash our hands of things and don’t try to move people into being able to support themselves then we are just giving up on big swaths of society. That just doesn’t seem like the moral thing to do.

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