Legislating More Obstacles for Wisconsin’s FoodShare (SNAP) Users

Author: Susan Stanton . Date: November 10, 2017

Wisconsin is considering legislation that would initiate two pilot programs within FoodShare, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Recently introduced, AB 501/SB416 would create a pilot program offering FoodShare recipients discounts on “healthy foods.” The 10-month pilot would include 2000 households, 1000 from Milwaukee County and 500 from Dane County. The estimated cost of the pilot and evaluation is $600,000.

Another legislative proposal for Foodshare, AB 530 calls for a federal government waiver allowing Wisconsin to restrict the use of public benefits on “foods, food products and beverages that do not have sufficient nutritional value.” The estimated cost for this 5-year pilot is $12,006,400.

What are “healthy foods” and what foods have “sufficient nutritional value”?

Understandings of “healthy food” vary by age, culture, availability, portion size, individual health history and numerous other variables. Determining “sufficient nutritional value” poses similar challenges and at the very least, an individual food should be considered relative to the rest of what a person consumes.

Why does the Wisconsin legislature think people utilizing FoodShare need help choosing healthy groceries?

The USDA has determined that the buying habits of people utilizing SNAP programs mirror the buying habits of the rest of the country. If the eating habits of all Wisconsin residents need improvement, then a different approach is needed. Targeting FoodShare users implies that this group has worse eating habits than other Americans. If it is important to legislate what goes into the grocery bags of users of the FoodShare program, then it isn’t because of the food choices and subsequent health outcomes that the bills suggest.

If there was consensus on the definitions of healthy food and if the buying habits of FoodShare recipients were unhealthy, then how might families using FoodShare experience these policies?

Hopefully this is a question that would be addressed in the pilots’ evaluations. But, AB 530 does not include an evaluation component and AB501/SB416 requires an evaluation that only considers what families purchase and users’ health data. The study does not require an exploration of users’ experiences related to the requirements. Many families in urban and rural areas of Wisconsin that utilize FoodShare live in food deserts, areas with little or no access to grocery stores that offer fresh, healthy, and affordable foods. Requiring stores to offer a certain number of healthy food options in order to be able to accept payment through FoodShare may create additional obstacles for store owners in rural and urban areas. For example, sometimes suppliers require that orders include a minimum number of an item. Stores in rural areas may not be able to sell the minimum number and would have to absorb the cost as the food goes bad and urban stores may not have the space to display the minimum number and then face similar challenges. If those stores choose not to participate or can’t afford to remain open, then by imposing healthy food requirements on FoodShare users, those families may be required to travel further to purchase healthy foods which may not be reasonable. Effective policy should consider not only the economic implications for the state, but also the experiences that users have.

Wisconsin’s ongoing legislative emphasis on the eating habits and lives of users of the FoodShare program is noteworthy and troubling. Seeking legislation to restrict people from using public benefits to buy “junk food” is not a new idea for Wisconsin. In addition to stopping FoodShare recipients from buying “too much junk food,” the Wisconsin legislature has also pursued legislation to stop people from using FoodShare funds on “crab, lobster or other shellfish.” Wisconsin has already outlawed the use of FoodShare dollars on the convenient foods that are cooked and prepared at the store. The state of Wisconsin seems committed to controlling the lives and eating habits of it poorest residents at any cost to taxpayers.

In addition to the current proposals discussed above, Governor Walker is pursuing additional changes to FoodShare eligibility through his budget proposal by adding requirements related to child support payments and by requiring cooperation with the child support enforcement agency. Stay tuned for another blog about this topic.



Wisconsin Works for Some

Author: Susan Stanton . Date: February 8, 2017

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.