Gov. Walker’s Common Sense Welfare Reforms
Critics are wrong, it’s all about workforce readiness.
Recently Senator Kathleen Vinehout penned an opinion piece harshly critical of strong new welfare reforms championed by Governor Scott Walker, loaded with spurious claims that the disabled would lose their vehicles and farm families their livestock. Even a cursory glance at the legislation reveals these claims to be obviously, patently false. Let’s set the record straight.
Wisconsinites are generous people. We consistently rank in the top five of America’s most charitable states, and that generosity extends to our many welfare programs. The Tax Policy Center shows our state and local welfare expenditures are above the national average, and highest among the Great Lakes states.
Wisconsinites are happy to provide assistance to families in need. And we’re even happier when we can provide skills training, drug treatment, or other tools to break down barriers to employment—because another one of our Wisconsin values is the belief that work is the path to dignity and true independence.
Under the leadership of Governor Walker, we have continued Wisconsin’s legacy of leadership in welfare reform by focusing on workforce readiness. We provide more than just a check, but access to the kinds of training and treatment able-bodied adults need to get back on their feet and back in the workforce.
These newest reforms will expand work and training participation for able-bodied adults on FoodShare, require able-bodied adults to pay their child support, and require drug screening for state housing. In addition, we would put in place generous asset limits constraining the value of cash/stocks to $25,000, homes to $312,000, and personal vehicles to $20,000 for participants in welfare programs.
For context, half of Americans have under $1,000 in their savings accounts, and the median savings account balance is just over $5,000. The median-valued home in Wisconsin is half of the new limits—a bit over $150,000, and the average used-car price is just over $19,000. Contrary to Vinehout’s claims, farm land, equipment, livestock, and buildings are all excluded. People with disabilities and the elderly have been, and will continue to be, exempt from work requirements and asset limits.
With unemployment in Wisconsin at historic lows, and 90,000 jobs listed on the state’s employment website, employers are feeling the pinch as they struggle to find skilled, drug-free workers. And job seekers are facing the reality that they may need some training to get the job they want.
Increasingly job openings are for middle-skilled workers—those with more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree—while the workforce skillset is mismatched. Nationally, 53% of openings are for that middle-skilled worker, while only 43% of workers fit the description.
Skills and training can make – and are making in Wisconsin – the difference between being un- or underemployed, and filling an in-demand position that pays well, and offers the potential for career growth.
That’s where our FoodShare Employment and Training (FSET) program can help. Since 2015, Governor Walker and the legislature have invested $60 million – above and beyond regular benefits to recipients – into this program that provides training and employment assistance to help able-bodied FoodShare recipients find a good, or a better, job.
Far from being a disadvantage to recipients, FSET adds value, giving people an opportunity to enhance their skills and move into the workforce. In fact, it’s such a value that many participants sign up for the training even when they are not required to do so.
Does it work? You bet. We’ve had more than 25,000 people get jobs and they’re making an average of $12.68 an hour, well above minimum wage. And the average FSET participant is working 35 hours a week, 140 hours a month, well above the 80 hour requirement.
Wisconsin has been a proud leader in welfare reform, and these proposals are simple, common sense reforms that help move people from dependence to independence by investing in work readiness, while keeping a strong focus on accountability. Vinehout may believe they “fly in the face of common sense” but the generous people of Wisconsin are rooting for people in need to use these tools, training and treatment as a trampoline to leap forward into a better future.
Heather Smith, Wisconsin Medicaid Director