WCC Joins others in addressing proposed public benefits legislation (Jan 2018)

Governor Walker has called for the Wisconsin Legislature to pass a set of ten bills making changes in programs such as FoodShare, subsidized housing, Medicaid, childcare support, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Peter Bakken, WCC’s Public Policy Coordinator, joined the Rev. Cindy Crane, Executive Director of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin, and the Rev. Michael Rehak, representing Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, in speaking at a January 31 hearing on the bills. They, and many others at the hearing, agreed that a good job is the best solution to poverty for most people, but said that the legislation proposed would make it harder for many people to get the help they need, while doing little to help them escape poverty through work.

A copy of the Council’s written testimony appears below:

January 31, 2018

TO: Assembly Committee on Public Benefit Reform
Senate Committee on Public Benefits, Licensing, and State-Federal Relations

FROM: Peter Bakken, Coordinator for Public Policy
Wisconsin Council of Churches

RE: January 2018 Special Session Bills AB1/SB1 through AB10/SB10

The Wisconsin Council of Churches (WCC) is a community of Christian denominations that covenant to pray and work together for the unity and renewal of the church and the healing and reconciliation of the world.  The Council encompasses 19 denominations with approximately 2,000 congregations and over one million church members.

The Council’s efforts to promote social and economic justice for Wisconsin’s most vulnerable residents are grounded in the belief that every human being bears the indelible image of God. Those who find themselves in need of public assistance are our neighbors, friends, family members, and fellow worshippers.  They all deserve to be respected and to live with dignity, health, and hope as full members of our community.

A self- or family-supporting job is the best solution to poverty for those who are able to work. The legislation proposed for this session purports to alleviate the hardship of poverty by helping people find work.  However, these bills will not accomplish that purpose and instead will increase hunger, homelessness, ill health, and other hardships for many people – making it even more difficult for them to escape poverty through work.

We are concerned that many of these bills impose new burdens on people who are already facing challenging financial and personal circumstances, add to the stigma of poverty, and create additional obstacles that can prevent people from receiving the benefits they need and for which they qualify.  They impose work requirements without providing adequate job supports or taking into consideration the real situations of people in poverty, which is manifestly punitive and unfair.  They fail to address barriers to employment such as lack of transportation, lack of childcare, and low wages.

Some of the bills are promising, but fall short in certain respects, particularly provisions for evaluation and criteria for success.

Comments on the specific January 2018 Special Session bills follow:

Assembly Bill 1/Senate Bill 1: Required hours of participation in the FoodShare employment and training program (OPPOSE), and

Assembly Bill 2/Senate Bill 2: Statewide FoodShare employment and training program requirement for able-bodied adults (OPPOSE)

Together, these bills require parents of school-age children and adult students enrolled less than half time to participate in FoodShare Employment and Training at the maximum allowed by the federal government.  This will likely cause some parents and students to lose FoodShare benefits without being helped to find stable, self-supporting jobs. The federal maximum of 30 hours of work or job training per week would not be feasible for a parent of a school-age child if the parent’s work schedule doesn’t align with the child’s school schedule or can’t accommodate school vacations or in-service days, which is often the case for low-wage service jobs.  Adult students who are taking classes less than half time might be unable to stay in school due to this increased work requirement.

Assembly Bill 3/Senate Bill 3: Asset restrictions on eligibility for FoodShare, Wisconsin Works, and Wisconsin (OPPOSE)

Placing asset restrictions on low-income people is counterproductive if the goal is to improve their economic security and stability over the long run.   Saving for the future – for example,  to weather unexpected events or get more education to get a better job – should be encouraged, not penalized.  Many people need public benefits in order to get through a temporary crisis or loss of income; they should not be forced to lose ground or get trapped in a downward spiral by selling off assets that they will need in the future.  Moreover, the need to collect and process additional information to establish eligibility for these programs may prevent some people from applying, and will increase administrative costs to the state.

Assembly Bill 4/Senate Bill 4: Employment screening of residents in public housing (OPPOSE)

We see many reasons to doubt that requiring drug screening and testing for housing assistance applicants will really help them to become employed. Subjecting applicants for federal assistance to drug screening and testing adds to the stigma of applying for public assistance, and may discourage some from seeking the very help they and their families need.

The bill states only that persons who test positive will be offered the opportunity to participate in treatment.   If a person refuses or if treatment is unsuccessful, what are the consequences?  Will children be deprived of housing because of a parent’s drug problem? How many treatment opportunities will be offered?  Drug addiction is a chronic illness that requires ongoing support and treatment. Nor is it a relatively simple problem that can be solved with one or two courses of treatment.  Given the limited availability of treatment programs for persons of modest means, the lack of adequate funding, and  long waiting lists, it is likely that many persons who are jobless or in poverty would be simply punished, rather than helped, by this policy.

Depriving people of stable housing will weaken our communities by increasing poverty, food insecurity, and health care costs.  Drug testing programs for public benefits in other states have proved very expensive and provided meager results.  There are better ways to use our limited public funds to help people overcome drug addictions and prepare for jobs that will support themselves and their families.

Assembly Bill 5/Senate Bill 5: Periodic payments of the earned income tax credit (OTHER)

The earned income tax credit (EITC) is an extremely valuable policy for making work pay for low-income workers.  There are advantages to allowing recipients to receive payments periodically during the year rather than as one lump sum.  However, it is difficult to understand why the bill does not provide for an evaluation of the pilot program before making it permanent and statewide. There may also be reasons why someone may wish to receive the credit all at one time, and it is not clear why that option is not provided.

Assembly Bill 6/Senate Bill 6: Pay-for-Performance for Wisconsin Works and FoodShare employment and training programs (OTHER)

The bill appears to aim at strengthening the outcome requirements for the providers of employment and training providers, which would be an improvement in program accountability and stewardship.  What will be critical is whether those standards ensure that participants are placed good jobs with adequate wages that will enable them to become more economically secure.  There also needs to be robust evaluation of the program and greater support for Technical Colleges and Transitional Jobs programs as ways to move people into better jobs.

Assembly Bill 7/Senate Bill 7: Pay-for-success contracting (OTHER)

Pay-for-success is considered by many to be a promising way to improve the cost-effectiveness of social programs, but is not without controversy.  We would need more time to study the pros and cons and potential pitfalls of this approach before taking a position.

Assembly Bill 8/Senate Bill 8: Child support compliance in the Medical Assistance program (OPPOSE)

This appears to be counterproductive and unnecessary.  Losing health insurance would make it harder for a non-custodial parent to make child support payments, if they then have to pay for health care out-of-pocket, or lose a job or are unable to work because of a medical condition for which they cannot afford treatment. Wisconsin has other ways to enforce child support that do not involve depriving people of assistance with meeting basic needs.  Also, there will be significant costs for enabling the relevant computer systems, CARES and KIDS, to share information as this bill requires.

Assembly Bill 9/Senate Bill 9:  Savings account program in the Medical Assistance program (OPPOSE)

Making health savings account (HSA) payments could be an obstacle for lower income people, who are less likely to have access to bank accounts, debit or credit cards, or the internet.  Participants might lose coverage or have their coverage downgraded if they miss a payment. There is some evidence that people with HSAs might delay necessary care or skip preventive care, resulting in more use of more expensive care and hospitalization.

Assembly Bill 10/Senate Bill 10: FoodShare ID cards (OPPOSE)

AB10/SB10 runs counter to the progress Wisconsin has made in streamlining the FoodShare application process through its online, multi-program application system.  It creates new hurdles for people who have challenges finding the time or the means to travel to a public benefits office during its service hours to have a photo taken.  Those most affected would include those who need assistance the most: seniors, people with disabilities, families with children, and low-income workers. People who need help will be discouraged or prevented from applying.

This bill also introduces an added burden for business. If FoodShare participants are required to show a photo ID at the checkout line, federal rules require that everyone else using a debit or credit card would have to do the same – an added burden for retailers and an inconvenience for customers. If the requirement for everyone to show a photo ID is sidestepped, people in poverty will be singled out and stigmatized.  One of the reasons that FoodShare is such a valuable program is that it allows people who receive it to shop for food like everyone else. They are able to use their EBT card at grocery stores just like a debit card.  The EBT card provides people with access to food without setting them apart, allowing them to obtain it with dignity, freedom of choice, and personal responsibility.

This special session on public benefits programs provides an opportunity to raise awareness that poverty continues to be a problem in Wisconsin, and that state government has a role to play in enabling people struggling with poverty to meet their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, and to obtain gainful employment.

We are disappointed, however, that these bills do little to address the real challenges faced by underemployed and unemployed people in obtaining good jobs; that their likely result for many people will be to increase the burdens of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and health problems; and that they will increase administrative expenses and bureaucratic red tape.

Poverty and unemployment are issues that require much more serious, evidence-based, and well considered responses than are being offered by the bills in this special session.  We can and must do better than this for the people of Wisconsin.

Thank you for considering our position on these bills.

Download a copy

Read the joint statement

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