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In Wisconsin, Food Assistance Is No Longer Free

MCT via Getty Images

Sherrie Tussler’s latest fight with the state of Wisconsin is about a fax machine. Tussler, the leader of a Milwaukee-based food distribution and advocacy center called Hunger Task Force, is upset that the Department of Health Services now requires that nutrition assistance applicants fax, rather than scan, their forms to the office. Fax machines only print out a proof that documents were sent—unlike scans, they don’t provide a detailed account of what was sent. “Fuck, faxes are as old as dinosaurs,” she says. “Moving back to using fax machines is taking people’s rights away.”

Under Tussler’s leadership, the Hunger Task Force has been a gadfly for years to the state, protesting benefit cuts and haranguing administrators to provide the best services to Milwaukee’s poor. Most recently, Tussler has been fighting a new law that took effect Wednesday which sets work requirements for certain recipients of federal nutrition assistance. Benefits for each able-bodied adult without dependents who doesn’t work 80 hours per month via employment or state work programs will be terminated after three months of non-compliance. In essence, if you’re single without children, and you’re unemployed or underemployed for more than three months, that’s it. It’s a program that Governor Scott Walker described as “making it easier to get a job,” but advocates, especially Tussler, are skeptical. There is only one certain outcome of this new requirement, Tussler says: More people in Wisconsin will go hungry. 

When the state legislature passed the nutrition assistance work requirements in 2013, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau offered the sobering estimate that as much as half of the state’s eligible able-bodied adults without dependents would be rendered ineligible for benefits. The report said that “the short-term effects would likely be to reduce federally funded benefits that are currently available to a significant number of state residents with low income and who rely on these benefits to support a basic need.” In total, the report estimated that the requirements would force the state to forfeit about $72 million in federal dollars (because nutrition assistance is federally funded, and the administrative costs are split between the state and federal coffers). In exchange, the state would bar more than 31,000 people who live below or barely above the poverty line from receiving an average of $191 per month to buy food that the federal government had made available to them. 

The report wasn’t the only alarm bell. The state has already seen how this might play out, having tested out work requirements in Walworth, Racine, and Kenosha counties since last July. All three are nestled south of Milwaukee and had an estimated 5,413 nutrition assistance beneficiaries eligible for work requirements in 2013. Five months after the work requirements were enacted—which means only the second month past the three-month grace period—more than 700 people had lost their food stamps, Department of Health Services representative Claire Yunker said. The state declined to provide data from more recent months, but it’s likely that the attrition rate continued apace, with more than 300 additional people kicked off each month. “It’s disorganized down there,” Tussler said. Unlike in Milwaukee, where the Hunger Task Force provides centralized assistance to the poor, residents in those counties only have access to a patchwork of charities. One food bank director I contacted hadn’t realized that work requirements had been affecting her visitors. Now that the requirements have been rolled out across the state, the results in these three counties will be magnified. 

There’s hope amid the march of sad statistics. Built into the requirements is a mile-wide loophole that carves out exemptions for all sorts of reasons: An able-bodied adult without dependents who is caring for a child or incapacitated person—even if that person doesn’t live with the food-stamp recipient—can receive a pass. A note from a doctor or social worker note stating that the person on nutrition assistance is unable to work makes them exempt, too. Same with those receiving unemployment compensation, in an alcohol or drug treatment program, or enrolled in higher education classes. Tussler has capitalized on that loophole, distributing flyers at her food bank that list potential exemptions. She also proposed to work with the state in printing information about the requirements on the sides of paper bags that are distributed at food shelters, but she said Wisconsin officials weren’t interested. 

It’s not that providing work training and opportunities to Wisconsin’s hungry is a bad idea. With good intentions and lots of funding, a state work-for-food program could help connect people with better-paying jobs and needed skills. But Tussler has little faith in the contractors who have been tasked with making the work and training programs meaningful. ResCare, a for-profit company, will oversee the services in the tri-county pilot area and the Milwaukee area, where 22 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Tussler described one of the contractor’s programs, called “ResCare Academy,” as a computer-based education platform, where participants can supposedly build employable skills to suit the work requirement. Tussler says the program hasn’t been finished—ResCare declined to comment—and it does little for food stamp recipients who have limited skills with computers or reading and speaking English. It doesn’t help that ResCare has a record in contracting with other state programs: This March, a report by the Columbus Dispatch found that ResCare had cut welfare recipients from the program in record numbers while working as a contractor for Franklin County in Ohio. Since 2011, more than 70 percent of those receiving cash assistance in the county lost their benefits, much of that under ResCare’s oversight.

The challenge for Wisconsin will not be convincing recipients of nutrition assistance to find work. Rather, the state must convince recipients that it's worthwhile to work the required 80 hours in exchange for a little more than $150 worth of food. When Republican legislators passed the work requirement over unanimous dissent from Democrats, Republican Sen. Glenn Grothman said the law would push back against the “welfare lifestyle.”  But the popular rhetoric of people riding high on food stamps just isn’t accurate: Close to 40 percent of Wisconsin adults receiving nutrition assistance are employed, according to a report from Hunger Task Force Milwaukee. And in other cases, jobs are simply hard to find—especially for those who are hard-pressed for transportation or education. “I would say the remainder of people who aren’t elderly or disabled, easily 90 percent within a heartbeat would accept a job that pays well,” said a food pantry director in the tri-county test area. “It’s not like they don’t want to work.” She described able-bodied adults without dependents as people who fall through the cracks, often struggling with generational poverty, drug use, and difficult family situations.

As thousands of people are kicked off their food stamps in the coming year, they will turn to local food banks to make ends meet. Tussler estimates that by the spring of 2016, Hunger Task Force’s food pantry network will run out of food. By then, enrollment in the food stamp program will be lower—a success in the eyes of those who use food stamp enrollment as a measurement of poverty levels. “Cutting the food stamp rolls is not going to make things better,” Tussler says. “We’re hurting people who can’t take care of themselves and who can’t defend themselves.”