Gov. Scott Walker announced plans to establish new requirements for families using welfare assistance as part of the upcoming state budget proposal in a Monday press conference at the Capitol.
Joined by former Gov. Tommy Thompson, Walker said he will build upon the foundation Thompson built during his time in office in a new welfare reform package he calls “Wisconsin Works for Everyone.”
“It’s a series of things but with the overwhelming focus on work,” Walker said. “Now, more than ever, we have a tremendous opportunity to help everyone in the state not only find a job but a career, and to ensure everyone who is able is out working and enjoys the dignity that comes from work.”
An estimated 7,000 households could feel the effects of the reform, Walker said.
Walker used multiple metaphors to convey his vision for the future of welfare, framing public assistance as a trampoline, not a hammock, for those who are physically able.
“By that I mean … we will help people with the skills and increasingly, as you will see, with the barriers to work and barriers to employment,” Walker said. “In turn, we have an expectation that if we give people that assistance, if we give people that help, they will enter or re-enter the workforce.”
The governor also referred to ending assistance as “the stick” and benefits facilitating potential career growth — such as training, transportation and child care — the proverbial carrot.
Walker did not specify at what point people could potentially no longer receive welfare assistance, claiming federal and state timelines would differ, though the change could be fairly immediate.
The unemployment rate in Wisconsin was 4.1 percent as of November 2016, similar to the national unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Employers are increasingly telling us they need more people to play into the workforce,” Walker said.
Walker said by working with the Legislature, he has made great strides for adults without children. He said such individuals are required to be employed 80 hours or more per month and look for work at least five days a week to receive FoodShare assistance.
The governor said this has had “dramatic success” in transitioning people to work. But the idea appears to violate current federal law. Despite this, Walker again proposed the requirement that people pass a drug test to receive assistance.
“If they don’t [pass], we put our money where our mouth is,” Walker said. “We put money in and offer rehabilitation, so people can get healthy and clean again and re-enter the workforce.”
Walker said the testing is “not to be punitive, but because I hear from employers all the time who tell us ‘give me people who know how to work and people who can pass a drug test, and we can find a job for anyone in this state.’”
For people who are unable to meet the above requirements, the state would require them to participate in job training programs for “basic employability skills.” Walker did not explain the specifics of the training but said people would still be able to receive welfare assistance.
Walker said one of the program’s main concerns would be focusing on people on the “cliff,” who will receive less or no financial aid by increasing their income but still would not be able to support themselves, particularly when it comes to child care.
“Our proposal would wean people off,” Walker said.
Parents would pay $1 more in copay for child care for every $3 more they earn. Walker said the goal would be for parents to eventually pay in full without ever reaching that cliff.
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The same idea would apply to 18-year-olds in foster care and on Supplemental Security Income, a federal income supplement program.
“Traditionally there have been huge challenges to getting them into the workforce,” Walker said. “We’re going to create a new earned-income tax credit report to help transition them into the workforce.”
People with physical and mental disabilities can be in similar positions of wanting to work but concerned about losing necessary assistance, especially concerning their health, Walker said. He said legislators would work to create a safety net from this cliff.
Walker said another goal would be to reduce “recycling” into the correctional system by giving people valuable skill to obtain good-paying jobs.
“All these things … are all about helping ensure that Wisconsin works for everyone,” Walker said.
He said he hoped Democrats would also embrace the proposal as a pathway for success.
Thompson recounted a history of working with mothers on welfare and across the aisle to pass the original legislation.
“People that need the help wanted it,” Thompson said. “Governor Walker is very passionate about this, and he wants to do the same thing. He wants to make sure that every man, woman and child in Wisconsin has a job and has an opportunity to better themselves.”
Though Thompson said his efforts received bipartisan support in the past, some Democrats have been critical of the proposal. State Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said in a statement she will wait to judge until seeing the full proposal, but the plan currently lacks details.
“If Governor Walker plans to provide access to job training and educational dollars like Democrats have always said we should, I’m still in,” Taylor said. “If Walker plans to reduce access to health care and funding for those who serve people in need like he’s done in the past, then I’m out.”
State Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, was similarly critical in a statement, saying Walker and other Republicans in the Legislature are looking to score political points with the proposal at the expense of low-income families with children.
State Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, said in a statement it is “morally unfair and unjust to threaten reduced access to food and shelter for low-income families with children.”
Republican politicians state Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, and state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, voiced enthusiasm for the plan in their statements, as Walker makes Wisconsin a “leader in welfare reform again.”
“The governor is taking a major step to make sure people don’t only join the workforce, but succeed in it as well,” Darling said.
Kapenga said Thompson’s ’90s welfare reform was revolutionary for positioning employment as a way out of poverty, and Walker’s new reform could alleviate “burdensome” regulations.
Walker will deliver his 2017-19 state budget in the next few weeks.