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Wisconsin Ahead of the Curve in Changes to Safety Net Programs

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Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan on Thursday delivered his first big political speech as House Speaker. He called on Republicans to offer voters a comprehensive alternative to Democrats’ agenda.

Among the changes Ryan is recommending, is altering the country’s safety net programs. Wisconsin has been heading in that direction since Republicans took control of state government in 2011.

Gov. Walker has made reforming benefits programs a priority. He worked into his 2013 budget proposal, a provision requiring people receiving unemployment checks to look for a job four times a week instead of two. The legislature passed the measure.

Then, additional changes followed, according to Republican state Rep. Mark Born.

“We have moved a few bills through the Wisconsin state Assembly. The first few were regarding drug testing on some of the benefit programs specifically, then those were incorporated into the budget,” Born says.

Born is chairman of the new Public Benefits Reform Committee that Republican leaders created. It convened at the start of this year and has advanced key changes. One took effect in April.

The new rule requires able-bodied adults with no dependent children to work – or look for work, at least 80 hours per month, in order to get food stamps. The state set up a job training program to help, and Born says the changes have moved thousands off the FoodShare rolls.

“Early results of the program show that there were several thousand people participating in the work program, there were several thousand more that have jobs that met the requirements and didn’t have to continue in the program ,” Born says.

While Born touts the success stories, Robert Kraig points to the opposite results. Kraig works for the activist group, Citizen Action of Wisconsin. He cites state data that shows Wisconsin has now denied FoodShare benefits to 15,000 residents, in the three months since the new work rule took effect.

“If you create a work requirement where there aren’t enough good jobs, there isn’t enough public transportation to get to the jobs and there’s not enough child care, you’re talking often about single parents, if you haven’t taken care of all the things you need to do in order to make it possible for people to work, then you are simply taking food out of the mouths of families,” Kraig says.

Tim Smeeding watches trends in safety net programs at the La Follette School of Public Affairs in Madison. He gives mixed reviews to what Wisconsin has been doing.

“I think it’s important for able-bodied people to find work. The best way out of poverty is a good job with a decent wage that feeds a family. But, if you can’t find those jobs, or if you can’t get one because you’ve been incarcerated, should we then say sorry, we’re not going to feed you?” Smeeding asks.

In this year’s state budget, GOP leaders have enacted additional changes to safety net programs. Under one, people applying for unemployment benefits must be drug-tested, and so must FoodShare recipients. Opponents are challenging that rule in federal court.

House Speaker Paul Ryan would allow states to experiment with new requirements, to determine whether they might lessen the country’s enormous safety net expenditures.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.