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Members of Wisconsin GOP Set Sights on Overhauling Public Benefits

Gov. Walker in January 2017 announcing his budget will put work requirements in place for able-bodied recipients with school-aged kids.

Public Benefits are under fire in Wisconsin. Earlier this week, a joint committee of Democrats and Republicans in Madison held a public hearing on 10 bills that could change the way welfare works.

If passed, the bills would do everything from require photo IDs on FoodShare cards to increasing the number of hours some people have to work in order to receive FoodShare benefits.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says the 10 bills being taken up in the Special Session called by Gov. Walker are designed to achieve four very basic goals across the state. 

“Number one, to promote accountability. Number two, to encourage personal responsibility. Number three, to prevent fraud and abuse. And number four and most importantly, to get Wisconsinites off of government assistance and back into the world of work,” Vos says.

Right now, state law requires able-bodied FoodShare recipients without school age children to work 20 hours a week. The first two bills would increase the work hours to 30 while also including able-bodied adults with children over the age of six.

Republican Sen. Chris Kapenga of Delafield says the legislation is about giving people a purpose in life. “I see the purpose of a person and the skills that God created them for and they’re not using them. And if you talk to people who are on welfare, most of them would say I would love to work and most of them are not happy where they’re at. I don’t think that’s a political statement in any way."

While Democrats didn’t completely oppose the work requirements, many did question whether the wages were family supporting. Milwaukee Sen. LaTonya Johnson says that between April 1 and December 31, nearly 7,000 were hired through the states worker training program.

But she says there’s an elephant in the room. “The average pay for those 6,700 individuals is $12.91 an hour, thirty-five hours per week. That would average $450 per week, which would put them at an annual income of $23,500, which would still make them qualify for FoodShare,” Johnson says.

Johnson says that in Wisconsin, 40 percent of adults who work jobs that are not full-time qualify for FoodShare. She also called upon other lawmakers to recognize their biases.

“I think it’s the sentiment of the testimony that we’re hearing today that these individuals, basically what I’m hearing, have no work history. And so it’s important for us to teach them to get out and to learn the importance and the meaning of finding a job. And there hasn’t been any statistics that proves that that’s the reason that these individuals are unemployed,” Johnson says.

Johnson says 9 out of 10 jobs created in Wisconsin are now created outside of Milwaukee, while many people who need work are in the city.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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