Wisconsin’s FoodShare Work Rules: We Can Do Better

Last week’s report from the Department of Health Services announcing that over 41,000 able-bodied single adults lost access to food stamps in the past 12 months, while nearly 12,000 individuals found jobs through the program, brings into stark focus a fundamental question of what kind of a state do we want to be and what kind of a people we are.

Since April of 2015, all able-bodied adults without children living at home have been required to work at least 80 hours a month – or look for work or participate in training programs – as a condition of receiving food stamps under the FoodShare program. Since July, more than one-half of the eligible FoodShare recipients have been dropped from the program for failing to meet these requirements, according to DHS data, as reported by the Wisconsin State Journal.

We would be the last to speak in opposition to those 12,000 individuals who found work. We feel strongly that the best tool to fighting poverty is a good paying job and this is good news. Walker Administration officials and legislators who supported this work requirement, understandably, were outspoken in their praise for this job component of FoodShare, calling the program a true success.

But it needs to be asked: Do we really want to praise a program when 3 times the number of individuals who found jobs are going more hungry tonight as a result of that very same program? Is that something we really want to call a success?

It is easy to stereotype people in poverty and we would not be surprised if there were many who are saying “If people aren’t willing to work, then they shouldn’t be getting assistance.” In reality, however, the issue is not even close to being that simple. Many of those 41,000 live in areas of the state where jobs are either not available or accessible or for which they lack qualifications. Many may not have understood the rules. Based on our network’s collective fifty year history working with this population, we believe that the vast majority of those successful in obtaining jobs through the program would have done so even without the threat of losing their FoodShare benefits. It has been our experience that the vast majority of low-income individuals do not voluntarily choose to be in poverty. None of us would voluntarily choose that life; why would we think those actually afflicted by poverty would be any different?

As a result of these new work requirements for FoodShare, the lives of 12,000 individuals are demonstrably better – but the lives of 41,000 individuals are demonstrably worse. Isn’t there a better way to reach the goal of good paying jobs we all profess to seek, one that doesn’t create this level of distress?

One mark of a civilized society – and of the decency of its governments – is its commitment to ensuring the basics of life: food, shelter and clothing. When we use access to food as a cudgel for other outcomes (no matter how noble those outcome may be) and when, just as importantly, we take pride in doing so, something is amiss.
We can do better.