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Governor Walker Says Welfare Reform Headed to Wisconsin

LaToya Dennis
Governor Walker will propose a number of changes to Wisconsin's welfare program in his upcoming budget

Big changes to Wisconsin’s welfare system could be afoot. On Tuesday, Gov. Walker announced that his budget will put work requirements in place for able-bodied recipients with school-aged kids. 

Walker says his proposals get back to the very nature of what former Gov. Tommy Thompson had in mind, when he overhauled the state’s welfare program in the 1990s.

Before President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in the mid 1990s, Gov. Tommy Thompson had already implemented similar legislation here. His new welfare system was called Wisconsin Works, also known as W-2.

Gov. Walker is playing off that name by calling his proposed reforms, Wisconsin Works for Everyone.

“We’ve broken down every barrier towards people being employed and we put in place every incentive possible and reasonable to ensure that people are able to work in the state of Wisconsin,” he says.

Walker’s plan would require welfare recipients with school-aged children to work at least part-time or participate in a job-training program. The state would provide more child care benefits to those who would lose them – if their income grows.

Walker says right now, more people are working in Wisconsin than ever before, and the state has one of the highest workforce participation rates in the country. Still, he says companies here need more.

“There’s not a week, sometimes not a day that goes by that we don’t here from employers in every part of the state who say we need more people. We need more people to enter the workforce, not only to fill positions they have vacant but many employers say that they would take on more jobs, more business, more opportunity if they had confidence they could fill the positions they have,” Walker says.  

But he says this push isn’t about business, it’s about self-sufficiency.

“We fundamentally believe that public assistance should be a trampoline, not a hammock. And by that, I mean we want to help people get back into the workforce, not be settled into assistance, not just because it’s good for taxpayers, not just because it’s good for employers,” Walker says.

But State Senator LaTonya Johnson says she’s concerned.

“I don’t understand or see the necessity of refusing to feed or shelter individuals in hopes of getting them out and in hopes of getting them to go to work. Especially when you talk about adults with children. I would be interested to see the number of individuals that are actually relying on economic assistance who don’t work,” she says.

Johnson says there’s a lot of data that points to more people entering the workforce, yet they are not earning a family-supporting wage. She predicts that if the government weakens certain corporate regulations, the state – and country - will see even more people working but still needing public assistance.

Sherri Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, says Walker’s proposal requiring able-bodied adults with school-aged children to either work 80 hours a month or participate in a jobs program can’t be done.

“Well right now, it’s not lawful. Under the Supplemental Nutritious Assistance Program, which we call FoodShare here in Wisconsin, that program is a federal program and it’s federally regulated. And even when we reformed welfare back in 1996 and 1997 we did not allow parents of school-aged children to have to have a work requirement,” Tussler says.

She says Wisconsin has become known as a state willing to experiment with social reform – and to the detriment of the people here.

Gov. Walker is hopeful the new Trump administration will allow the state to pilot of a number of new welfare reforms. He says he’ll provide more details when he delivers his budget address next month.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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