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.

United Way Donates $31,000 to SDC’s Tax Help Program

The United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County has awarded a $31,000 grant to the Social Development Commission (SDC) for its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.  SDC is the Community Action Agency serving Milwaukee County.

The VITA program offers free federal and state tax preparation and filing assistance for low-income residents. It also offers financial workshops and banking assistance for those with a household income of $56,000 or less.

The SDC aims to raise $82,000 for VITA and also garner matching funds from the Internal Revenue Service for the 2015-’16 tax season. It expects to provide free tax return preparation and filing for 8,000 people this season.

“Learning of the grant from United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County was a magnificent holiday gift to SDC and the individuals and families that rely on the VITA tax program,” said George Hinton, chief executive officer of SDC. “United Way’s support means we can maximize our VITA operations and help thousands of program participants save hundreds of dollars which they can use for bills or to purchase food for their families.”

“Part of United Way’s mission is to mobilize people and resources to change lives and improve our community.” said Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact for United Way. “We were honored to be able to assist the Social Development Commission with the resources needed to continue this vital service to help local families.”

The VITA program will begin Jan. 19 and run through April 18. Locations and hours for assistance will be posted at www.cr-sdc.org in mid-January.

(This article compliments from BizTimes, Milwaukee Business News)

CAI Child Care Learing Center Earns Highest Youngstar Rating

A program of Community Action, Inc. of Rock & Walworth Counties, Community Kids Learning Center, has recently received a five-star YoungStar rating from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Five stars is the highest rating available, indicating a provider “meets highest levels of quality standards.”

This is the first year the community action agency’s child care center has achieved this rating level. The center experienced significant renovations in 2015 – from new doors and HVAC units to a new playground with an outdoor classroom space. The renovations were made possible by a capital campaign involving a $100,000 donation from a local business. The gift sparked other donations and volunteer labor to upgrade the center’s overall environment.

While Community Kids serves families from all income levels, the majority of children enrolled are eligible for state child care assistance. Community Kids is also one of the few state licensed centers in Janesville that offers second-shift schedules for working families.

Community Action, Inc. is the designated Community Action Agency for Rock and Walworth Counties, a locally controlled, not-for-profit organization providing a broad spectrum of community programs aimed at preventing and reducing poverty in Rock and Walworth Counties. CAI operates a Fresh Start program, child care; at-risk youth programming; health care; senior benefits counseling; homeownership programs; affordable housing units; home weatherization and rehabilitation; assistance in dealing with housing crises; food for area pantries; and shelter for the homeless.

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WISCAP Helps to Expand Rural Facilities

Five years ago, the neighboring Trempealeau County villages of Strum (pop. 1,001) and Eleva (pop. 635) faced identical problems. What to do about the communities’ aging wastewater treatment facilities?

The Strum facility, constructed in 1981, was in poor overall condition. The facility operated, on average, at about 65% of capacity. Forecasts indicated it would exceed capacity on an average day before the year 2030. In addition, the plant wasn’t capable of meeting the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ [DNR] phosphorous criteria.

In Eleva, a similar plant had been constructed in 1982. It operated at about 50% of capacity and it too would be overloaded regularly by 2030. The plant also did not meet the DNR’s phosphorous standards.

To address the issues of their aging treatment facilities the villages, in 2010, hired an engineering firm to complete a facility plan for the upgrade or replacement of their respective wastewater treatment facilities (WWTF).

After evaluating the various options and costs, it was agreed the best solution was to construct a new regional treatment facility to serve the needs of both communities – the Eleva-Strum Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility.  Based on the evaluation criteria used, joint treatment was found to be 25% less costly than constructing, owning and operating individual facilities.

The villages were referred to WISCAP’S Rural Community Development Department by both the engineering firm and by the U.S Department of Agriculture – Rural Development for assistance in developing a funding package for the $6.5 million joint project. Bill Brown, WISCAP’s Rural Community Development Director, and Lisa Totten, Rural Development Specialist, worked on the package. U.S.D.A. funding applications were developed. WISCAP completed income surveys for both communities for a Community Development Block Grant [CDBG] application. WISCAP also prepared the CDBG application for Eleva. The various mix of grant and loan applications was successful, resulting in a total funding package of $6,510,000 (USDA-Rural Development loan in the amount of $4,167,000; a USDA-Rural Development grant in the amount of $1,915,000; a CDBG grant in the amount of $400,000; and local funds totaling $28,000).

Plans and specifications for the project were approved by the DNR in October 2011. The facility was designed and bid in 2012; constructed in 2013; and became fully functional in 2014. During the construction phase, WISCAP Rural Development Specialist Totten also served as CDBG Administrator for the Village of Eleva.

To provide oversight and financial management of the project during construction and operation of the new facility, the villages of Eleva and Strum established the Eleva-Strum Joint Sewerage Commission. Totten provided financial management assistance to the commission and continues to assist both communities and the Commission with financial management capacity building and U.S.D.A. reporting – services provided under WISCAP’s Technitrain program, funded by USDA-Rural Development.

Racine Kenosha CAA Helps Low-Income Navigate the Complex World of Purchasing Health Insurance in the Marketplace

The Racine Kenosha Community Action Agency (CAA) has partnered with the Covering Wisconsin organization to provide healthcare navigator services to communities in its service area.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, healthcare navigators are supported by federal dollars to provide consumers, small businesses and their employees with unbiased help understanding options available through the marketplace and in completing eligibility and enrollment forms. While this important work is conducted throughout the year, the open enrollment periods provide the biggest challenge to meeting consumer needs.

Throughout the 2014-15 open enrollment period, CAA navigators noted an increasing need to help consumers organize and understand the materials they received as part of the enrollment process. Consumers often came to appointments with envelopes, loose papers and folded printouts of income history, legal notices and communications from various state and federal agencies. At the same time, the enrollment process requires consumers to establish accounts on the marketplace website with user names, passwords and security questions. Completed applications produce 16-page eligibility determination documents with important dates, application numbers and instructions for providing verification information. Finally, plan selection provides consumers with insurance premium, deductible, out-of-pocket maximum amounts and co-pay/coinsurance amounts. Even the most prepared consumer was inundated with information and documents which, upon returning home, probably seemed overwhelming. Continue reading

SWCAP: Transitioning to a New Ethnic Reality

Southwestern Wisconsin, the region served by the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program (SWCAP), like other rural areas of Wisconsin and of the Midwest, is experiencing a dramatic shift in its demographic profile. No matter where one looks in terms of census data, community planning and/or economic development, size of school systems, church attendance, etc., the realities of the shift hit home. What one sees is the following:

  • The overall population will not grow or will actually decline. The current population for the five counties served by SWCAP (Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette and Richland) is 148,090 and is expected to grow to 158,485 by 2030 – or only a 7% increase overall. In some counties, the overall population is expected to drop.
  • The population of retirement age is expected to grow from 25,235 in 2015 to 38,820 in 2030, or an increase of 58%. The population is projected to get much older.
  • The total school enrollment in CESA 3 for the region dropped from 23,026 in 2001 to 19,554 in 2014, or a 15% drop – with some communities experiencing a more dramatic drop in enrolled children.
  • The average age of farmers in 1992 was 50 years of age. In 2012, it was 57 years of age. Recently, in Wisconsin, it was calculated at 63 years of age. As these farmers begin to ratchet down and approach retirement age – or the age where they cannot be as physically active working on the farm – the transition to younger farmers or farm workers will be a crucial issue.

Continue reading

Remembering Karl Pnazek

Karl Pnazek, long-time CEO of CAP Services and a state and national leader in the Community Action movement, died peacefully at home with his wife Bonnie at his side, after a courageous battle with brain cancer and the health challenges that too often come with a cancer diagnosis.  The loss brings deep sorrow for Bonnie, their son Brandon and his wife April and their children, and their extended families.

Karl’s reach was wide and deep and as such the loss is felt by literally thousands of people who had the privilege to work with him and those whose lives were made better by the resources and opportunities created under his leadership.  Others knew him only through his frequent open letters to the local paper but even they came to understand this man’s core was made up of integrity, innovation, insight and initiative. He was often described as the smartest man people ever knew.   He mentored many and inspired more.  He called out unfairness when he saw it and had high expectations of people.  He was tough too and often said what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  He didn’t often back down and that may have been what led to his many successes. Continue reading

October 30 is Weatherization Day

Nationwide Recognition Highlights Importance of Weatherization to Low-Income Households, the Environment, and the Economy

It’s no secret that lower-income households spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on the basics. The lower your income, the greater the burden of paying for housing, food, transportation, and most other necessities of day-to-day living. Energy costs are no exception. Lower-income Wisconsinites may spend as much as 12% of their income on energy, compared to 3% for the average Wisconsin household. Often they are forced to cut back on food, medicine, or other necessities in order to pay their energy bills.

Each year, October 30th is recognized as Weatherization Day to call nationwide attention to the impact of energy costs on low-income households and to highlight the importance of weatherization assistance available to lower-income households through initiatives like the state’s weatherization program, a component of Wisconsin’s Home Energy Plus Program. With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), weatherization services are available in each of the 50 states and the District Columbia, as well as through Native American tribes. Continue reading

NCCAP: The Challenge Poverty Presents to All of Us

At North Central Community Action Program, Inc. (NCCAP) we work with low-income individuals and families who face multiple challenges in their lives. This is not a new concept for our organization or for any Community Action Agency. Low-income people as a whole have many obstacles to overcome. Whether it is limited income, housing and homelessness, health issues, mental health diagnoses, issues caused by victimization or dysfunctional family dynamics low-income people have many issues that impact their lives and make life challenging. These challenges make providing services challenging as well.

At NCCAP our mission is to act as an advocate, provider, and facilitator of programs and services for low-income individuals in Lincoln, Marathon, and Wood Counties (Wisconsin). NCCAP seeks to create opportunities for people and communities to obtain skills, identify, and utilize resources and explore innovative options necessary to reduce poverty and increase self-sufficiency. As far as missions go, we feel that this mission is a good one. Our Board of Directors adopted this mission and it is appropriate for our organization. Our mission meets national performance standards for a mission statement in the Community Action world and provides guidance and direction for the services we provide to our clients. We take pride in our approach to working with low-income people and this has been the case since we first began as an organization in 1966. Continue reading

CAP Services Receives $250,000 to Continue SBA Microloans

CAP Services Inc. was recently awarded $250,000 from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to relend under the SBA’s Microloan program.

CAP Services, which provides business assistance and lending services in Calumet, Marathon, Marquette, Waushara, Portage, Outagamie, Waupaca and Wood counties, was named an SBA micro-lender in 2013, with an initial award of the same amount.

“We’ve loaned out almost all of the initial $250,000, so this new award will allow us to continue offering microloans to small start-ups and expanding business that may face difficulty finding financing from a traditional lender,” said Laura West, CAP’s director of Business Development.

The SBA’s microloan program provides loans up to $50,000 to help small businesses start up and expand. Intermediaries administer the Microloan program for eligible borrowers. CAP was approved as an intermediary lender in 2013 based on its experience in lending as well as management and technical assistance experience. Continue reading