In his budget, to be released this week, Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker is expected to roll out Wisconsin Works for Everyone, a plan which will further aspects of the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program also known as W-2 or Wisconsin Works. Self-sufficiency is the stated goal of the Wisconsin Works for Everyone proposal, which seems to mean not utilizing safety net services to care for one’s self or family. It makes sense for the state to want adults and parents to provide for themselves and their children financially. Of course, most parents want the same thing.
A fundamental component of Governor Walker’s proposal would require able-bodied parents whose children are ages 6-18 and who receive FoodShare benefits (aka food stamps, SNAP, QUEST card) and/or housing subsidies to work 80 hours per month and if that goal is not met, to impose sanctions and ultimately, revoke the benefit. In April 2015, Wisconsin created a similar FoodShare requirement for so-called “childless adults” which include the majority of typical low-income noncustodial parents. Since then, about 21,000 Wisconsin residents using food stamps have met W-2’s employment requirement through state employment programs. But here’s the catch: 64,000 FoodShare recipients lost benefits entirely. This means that for every one FoodShare recipient who has met the 80-hour-per-month requirement, three have not, and all three have lost access to this piece of the safety net as a result. Essentially, the new proposal would expand a requirement for a benefit intended to provide food for children and adults, a requirement that has succeeded for just 1 in 4 people in a pilot program, hardly a success. It would now include even more adults, parents and children in need.
Many of these marginalized parents already feel additional burdens around work, money, housing and feeding their children. While the Governor indicates that there will be more supports to help FoodShare recipients find jobs, low-income parents of color continue to face many employment and housing challenges in seeking self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency can remain out of reach for a multitude of reasons: lack of transportation, limited access to affordable, geographically reasonable, and safe child care; racial discrimination; access to affordable housing; inconsistent work schedules; low wages and jobs with no benefits, among others. These challenges affect low-income parents’ ability to find and keep any job, much less a job with a living wage or a career ladder.
Yet even if low-income noncustodial parents successfully navigate and endure these challenges and manage to obtain and retain work, they might receive a paycheck reflecting substantially less than 40% of their earned wages. When reviewing a paystub, many low-income noncustodial parents see common deductions like Social Security and a monthly child support payment, but many also have deductions for arrears and By federal law, the state can deduct up to 60% from a noncustodial parent’s paycheck for the current payment and for arrears. The remainder might not be enough to allow for self-sufficiency, much less to help families move toward economic security or even income stability. If child support payments are not made regularly, many noncustodial parents are at risk of going to jail and will in that case likely lose their jobs, while child support arrears often continue to accrue. Whether they work more or less than 80 hours per month, these parents and children need access to safety net services including food and housing.
It is also important to note that, for the poorest families who have ever received cash benefits from the state, the state deducts a portion of the payment to reimburse state welfare payments to the family. According to the Office of Child Support Enforcement, as of 2015, child support debt in Wisconsin totaled $2.6 billion. Approximately 17%, or $449 million, of that was owed by families with the lowest incomes to the government to repay W-2 benefits. Wisconsin Works for Everyone purports to incentivize work and is touted for its intention to reward working families and move families out of poverty. Yet, for the families with the greatest financial needs, it appears that they are simply being ‘helped” to pay the state money the parents and children can ill afford.
Reforming the welfare system is necessary to ensure that Wisconsin works for everyone. But effective reforms will focus on changing policies and practices to help ensure that low-income fathers and mothers (regardless of whether they live in the same residence as their children) will be able to provide for their children. Creating more requirements rooted in an inaccurate perception that low-income parents do not want to take care of their children simply ensures that they won’t be able to do so. In fact, expanding the requirements for FoodShare recipients and shrinking the safety net that already fails to effectively support childless adults ensures that Wisconsin will increase its numbers of homeless adults and children who are not getting the nutrition they need.