FoodShare work, hour rules expanded for able-bodied

Part two of two
by Dee J. Hall
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Since 2015, able-bodied FoodShare recipients in Wisconsin between the ages of 18 and 49 who have no minor children at home have been required to work, search for jobs or engage in occupational training at least 20 hours a week or lose their benefits after three months. Starting Oct. 1, 2019, this requirement will extend to parents with children ages 6 and above and, pending federal approval, will increase the requirement to 30 hours a week.

FSET is open to all Food- Share recipients regardless of whether they are subject to the work requirement.

Walker and legislative Republicans say the expanded work requirements for Food- Share recipients, passed during a special session in January and February, will preserve benefits for the truly needy and provide opportunities for the unemployed. Opponents, including many Democrats, argue the state should provide more support, not less, for people who are poor.

Overall, Wisconsin’s Food- Share program cost $867 million in 2017, paying benefits to about 682,000 people each month.

“Public assistance was never intended to be permanent, and this package will help us do our part in moving more people into the workforce and preventing fraud and abuse,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, testified at the public hearing for the nine welfare bills passed during the special session.

Democrats opposed most of the changes. State Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, said, “If Republicans were serious about helping working families, they would increase access to transportation and childcare, expand education and job training opportunities, and raise wages.”

In an interview, Glenn, from Just Bakery, did question whether the state and nonprofits such as hers will have the capacity to meet the needs of parents with children next year. Providing child care is expensive, she said.

“Do they have the tools and do we have the tools to make that (success) happen? How far are we willing to go?” Glenn asked.

The state’s FoodShare director, Rebecca McAtee, said currently, FSET pays for up to 90 days of child care for working parents. She said DHS is working with the Department of Children and Families to figure out a way to provide more help once the new requirements kick in.

According to DHS, people ho found work under FSET now earn an average of $13.02 an hour, with the number of weekly hours worked 34.9.

That means the typical FSET participant earns $23,629 a year — or less than the $24,120 a year gross income that qualifies a single person to receive Food- Share benefits. In other words, the typical FSET participant still qualifies for FoodShare.

McAtee said most of the FoodShare recipients who found work are in entry level jobs and “we’re really hoping that people are able to advance in their careers and that this is just a starting place.”

With the state’s unemployment rate at a historically low 2.8 percent, there are jobs available. But Lund said some recipients face barriers, such as criminal history or discouragement, that keep them from landing a job.

“If these people never get that help, then how do we ever get them on the track to the life that everybody wants?” she asked.

Walker vetoed a measure passed by the Legislature in the 2017-19 budget that would have required the state to evaluate FSET. That makes it difficult to figure out how well the program is working, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau found.

“It is not known how many of the individuals … would have gained employment without participating in the FSET program, how many individuals received full-time jobs rather than part-time jobs, or how many individuals found jobs with earnings that enabled them to no longer qualify for public assistance programs, including FoodShare,” the agency said in a 2017 paper.

Critics have complained that some recipients receive little meaningful training or promised individualized assessments to help them secure work. FSET is run by a network of seven vendors, including county human service agencies, nonprofits and one for-profit company, ResCare, based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Some clients of ResCare say they were offered generic online courses or assigned endless job searches, according to a series of complaints filed by Legal Action of Wisconsin about the company, which operates FSET in Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha counties.

“Participants in FSET routinely advise this office that they receive little, if any, individual and meaningful help from the program in securing permanent employment,” Legal Action attorney Patricia DeLessio wrote in 2017.

McAtee said the state’s on-site visits to ResCare in 2017 and 2018 turned up only minor problems, and “I don’t believe that Res- Care has any open, active issues.”

Bianca Shaw of Milwaukee said she stopped her voluntary participation in FSET because it required 80 hours a month of work or job searching to earn $600 in FoodShare benefits. “That’s slave labor,” she said.

Instead, Shaw got a job at a Milwaukee social-service agency. But she said the cost of child care for her daughter, Olivia, health insurance, food, utilities and rent consume her paycheck each month.

Speaking at a Capitol press conference in January, Shaw, a former legislative aide, said people like her would not need public assistance if the state provided better mass transit to get to and from work and made Wisconsin employers pay “a decent wage.”

But for Tyrees Scott, participating in FSET has been life-changing. The 47-year-old said he had a hard time finding work after being sent to prison “more than a couple of times.” He completed the training at Just Bakery and now works at another Madison bakery. FSET paid for transportation, which helped him finish the course.

Scott said he learned to cook in prison. But Just Bakery taught him more than that.

“Not only do they teach you a skill, a bakery skill, but also life skills,” Scott said. “The program I think is real beneficial, once I made the decision to get my life together.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UWMadison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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