Scott Walker
PHOTO: Michael Vadon

Scott Walker has called on the Wisconsin Legislature to pass a sweeping welfare overhaul package that includes requiring parents on food stamps to meet a work requirement, imposes new drug testing for public housing applicants and mandates photo identification for food stamp recipients.

Democrats blasted the move, and the timing of the announcement, saying Walker was trying to excite his conservative base and distract from a recent upset Democratic victory in a special state Senate election. Walker labeled that GOP loss a “wake up call” for Republicans.

Walker called on the Legislature to approve the bills as part of a special session to run concurrently with the regular one expected to wrap up in March. Several of the ideas have been around for years and many, including the photo ID and drug-screening requirements for food stamp recipients, would require federal approval.

In fact, Walker asked the Legislature in December to pass a law that would mandate drug testing for recipients of the state’s Food Share program, even though similar laws enacted in other states have been ruled unconstitutional.

The Walker administration has acknowledged that the impact of such testing would have very limited impact. Last October, the administration estimated that only about 220 food stamp recipients statewide would test positive in the first year. 

Critics said the cost of testing would exceed any money saved by kicking such a few number of people off the program.

Still, Walker defended the package as a way to get more people off of public assistance and into the workforce at a time when Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is just 3 percent, tied for the lowest on record.

“With more people working in Wisconsin than ever before, we can’t afford to have anyone on the sidelines,” Walker said in announcing the package of proposals. “We need everyone in the game.” 

‘Sad and desperate’

Walker is up for re-election in November, and Democrats are riding high after an incumbent Republican state representative lost by 11 points in a special election for the state Senate in a district that President Donald Trump won by 17 points.

“It’s sad and desperate that he thinks the best way to win re-election is to go after struggling families who are trying to get ahead,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling. “This is not the issue impacting families across Wisconsin and this is not the issue families want fixed.”

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz accused Walker of “stoking fears, creating division, and pandering to his base.”

Those who work directly with people on state Medicaid programs also criticized the proposals.

“(Walker’s) proposals would hurt programs like FoodShare and housing assistance that support a person’s ability to work, and they would be punitive for low-income parents who face barriers to work, such as lack of affordable child care and limited transportation options, neither of which are addressed in this proposal,” said Ken Taylor, executive director of Kids Forward in an op-ed piece.

Kids Forward is a group that analyzes policies affecting children and families in Wisconsin.

Most people agree that certain welfare reforms are needed, said Bobby Peterson, executive director of ABC for Health, a nonprofit law firm in Madison that helps people get healthcare.

“But reform should be a helping hand up for low income people and not a kick backwards,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately, I see more of the latter in these proposals.”

Walker’s proposals, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Sen. Chris Kapenga, would:

• Expand the current food stamp work requirement that only covers able-bodied childless adults to include parents with school-aged children between the ages of 6 and 18 starting in October 2019. Walker also wants to increase the minimum work or job training hours for both adults and parents from 20 to 30 hours a week.

The current requirement has led to 23,100 able-bodied food stamp participants finding work and 81,000 losing their benefits.

• Require drug screening, testing and treatment to be eligible for public housing. Walker has already asked the Trump administration for approval to drug test Medicaid and food stamp recipients.

• Require photo IDs to participate in the food stamp program, a change that would require federal approval but that has been done in other states. Critics say that will be cumbersome to administer and not help anyone get a job, while supporters say it will cut down on fraud.

• Forbid anyone living in a home worth double the median value home, about $321,000, or owning vehicles worth more than $20,000 from receiving food stamps and other Medicaid benefits.

• Prohibit participation in Medicaid for any able-bodied adults who refused to cooperate with paternity determination of a child, establishing or enforcing any child support order or obtaining other payments a child has a right to receive.

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