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Advocates for the Poor Fear Wisconsin Food Stamp Rules will Make Benefits Harder to Obtain

Ann-Elise Henzl

For the last few months, Wisconsin residents who get food stamps have had to meet a work requirement. 

It’s one of a number of changes lawmakers have approved, or are considering, for the FoodShare program.

Supporters say the changes are about helping people become self-sufficient. Advocates for the poor believe the changes are about making benefits harder to obtain.

Roberto Isaac McKittrick just finished having dinner at the St. Ben’s Community Meal in downtown Milwaukee. He says he’s been on food stamps since last year, when he turned 18. McKittrick must meet Wisconsin’s new work requirement, because he’s under 50, able-bodied, and has no children. He must do some form of work or job training for 20 hours a week. McKittrick fears he won’t always be able to meet the requirement.

“I’m in college, I applied for MATC, but I’ve been trying to get a job and work with the FoodShare,” McKittrick says.

Adding to McKittrick’s concerns is the fact that he’s confused about the program’s new rules. He’s not sure he’s taking the right steps to comply.

“It’s really stressful,” McKittrick says.

The state hopes to ease such stresses with a new job training program it created for food stamp recipients. Medicaid Director Kevin Moore believes it will help people get on their feet.

“We want to make sure that they have every opportunity to join the workforce, and that they have access to the job training to hone their skills, so that they’re able to get the jobs that are available out there today,” Moore says.

So far, nearly 10,000 people have participated in the program. It’s too soon to gauge the results.

Gov. Scott Walker continues promoting another strategy to help get FoodShare recipients into the workforce: random drug testing. He says it will connect people with treatment, if that’s what they need to become employable. Walker touted drug testing when announcing his presidential bid in Waukesha.

“When we help people -- adults who are able to work -- transition from government dependence to true independence, we help more people live that piece of the American dream,” Walker said.

Wisconsin needs a federal waiver or a judge’s approval before it could drug test food stamp users. Very few states have pursued the strategy.

Legislators, meanwhile, are considering another change to the food stamp program. Last week they debated putting photos on the debit cards recipients use to buy food. Supporters say the change would deter fraud. Opponents say it would make it impossible for family members to share a card.

Sherrie Tussler of the Hunger Task Force sees the changes as a “change in direction” that tightens eligibility standards. She says she noticed shifting attitudes about food stamps after the recession hit in 2008.

“When the number of people eligible for food stamps increased dramatically across the United States, people believed that somehow or other that was an indication that people were making themselves eligible for the program illegally, or committing fraud with their food stamp benefits,” Tussler says.

Tussler points out that lawmakers may not yet be done fiddling with the food stamp program. Another measure that began moving through the Legislature this year would require recipients to spend two-thirds of their benefits on healthy food.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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