The following open letter to Gov. Scott Walker urges him to remove time limits for people on FoodShare who live in 20 counties and 10 cities in Wisconsin with high unemployment rates.
Dear Gov. Walker,
As FoodShare participants are losing food aid at higher than projected rates, we urge you to request a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from harmful FoodShare time limits and protect vulnerable Wisconsinites in areas that are lagging behind in economic recovery. Currently, up to 20 Wisconsin counties and 10 cities are eligible for a waiver from Time Limited Benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Wisconsin should request this waiver.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), referred to as FoodShare in Wisconsin, assists low-income adults, children, and seniors in Wisconsin with funds to purchase groceries. In order to receive FoodShare benefits for more than three months within a three year time period, non-exempt able bodied adults without dependent children must work at least 20 hours per week, a requirement instituted under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. During the recent recession, elevated unemployment rates made many areas across Wisconsin eligible for a time limit waiver.
Prior to the economy fully recovering in all parts of the state, time limits for FoodShare were imposed statewide as of April 1, 2015. Those recipients who cannot find work on their own can maintain their benefits by participating in the state’s FoodShare Employment and Training Program (FSET), which is outsourced to private agencies contracted regionally throughout the state. Failure to meet an employment program’s mandates means individuals are eligible for only three months of FoodShare Time Limited Benefits out of every 36- month period.
In April through December of 2015, 62,458 individuals, or 7.7 percent of the total FoodShare recipients, were referred to FSET to meet the program mandates. During just the first six months of the disenrollment period, 30,453 people lost their benefits because they did not meet these mandates, including some who participated in FSET and were unable to gain sufficient employment as a result. This disenrollment is occurring much faster than originally projected – in 2013, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau projected a statewide disenrollment of 31,349 over the course of the entire first year of imposing time limits.
Unfortunately, mandating work does not create jobs. For those living in areas of high unemployment, the situation was already dismal. As a state, we must not take away food aid for failure to find a job in areas of our state where economic recovery is still hoped for rather than assured. Securing a job remains a significant challenge for many in Wisconsin, and unemployment continues to be high in particular parts of the state. Areas with persistently high unemployment are clustered in the rural northern portions of the state, while urban areas with high unemployment are located in the southeastern portion of the state. These parts of the state qualify as “Labor Surplus Areas” where there are significantly fewer jobs available than people looking for work. Disparities in our state are pronounced: while the unemployment rate in the majority of our state’s counties falls below that of the nation as a whole, several counties have unemployment rates above 9%. Thus, considering Wisconsin’s unemployment situation as a whole does not adequately capture the unique challenges faced by job seekers in different geographical locations across our state.
In addition, the FoodShare program is not only instrumental in improving food security for low income individuals and families, but it also increases spending in local economies as recipients purchase food within the community they live. The decline in FoodShare enrollment due to the reimplementation of Time Limited Benefits amounts to a monthly loss of approximately $3,244,271 in federal money spent at grocery stores in communities across Wisconsin. Finally, failure to seek a Time Limited Benefits waiver for qualifying areas in this state creates increased demand for emergency soup kitchens and food pantries, placing an unmanageable burden on local charitable resources to provide food. Mandatory FSET participation will continue to push people into deeper dependency as they become reliant upon charity for the basic need of food. Furthermore, forcing individuals to utilize charitable resources robs them of the dignity of going to the grocery store to select food that meets their nutritional needs and cultural preferences.
For all of these reasons, the undersigned organizations respectfully request that Wisconsin seek a waiver for eligible parts of our state and stop imposing three month time limits on receiving food aid in those areas.
Hunger Task Force
Public Policy Institute
Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice
Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin
Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health
Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups
Wisconsin Education Association Council
Wisconsin Council of Churches
Citizen Action of Wisconsin
Wisconsin Council on Children and Families
Mental Health America of Wisconsin
Wisconsin Catholic Conference
Good Samaritan COGIC
The Sharing Center Friedens
Food Pantry St. Veronica’s
Food Pantry La Causa
Amani Community Food Pantry
Family Life Center
Tosa Community Food Pantry
Daystar The Gathering
The Cathedral Center Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH)
Wisconsin Community Action Program Association (WISCAP)
Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources, Inc. (GWAAR)
Jeremiah Missionary Baptist Church Food Pantry
Food stamp recipients in Wisconsin will face new hurdles to keep their benefits under a series of bills Republicans plan to pass Tuesday in the state Assembly, despite objections from advocates for the poor who say the result will be to make it harder for people in need to get food.
Three of the proposals target participants of Wisconsin’s food stamps program known as FoodShare. A fourth bill would take unemployment benefits away for seven years from those who pretend to be someone else or lie when applying.
The proposals come after the Legislature already approved Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal requiring drug tests for FoodShare recipients. The Assembly passed another measure barring FoodShare recipients from purchasing junk food, but it is stalled in the Senate.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous we’re talking about who should or should not get food,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, a food bank based in Milwaukee. Her group and others, including social workers, attorneys for the poor and advocates for low-income children and families, oppose the measures.
No one has registered to lobby in support of any of the FoodShare bills, and no one testified at public hearings on the measures except for Republican lawmakers sponsoring them.
The proposal targeting unemployment benefits is supported by a host of groups representing large and small businesses, including the state chamber of commerce.
Tussler said the bills are part of a misguided political agenda against the poor, based on myths and false assumptions about those receiving benefits.
Republican supporters say they are not going after poor people, but those who are gaming the system and receiving benefits they are not entitled to.
“The overall goal is to ensure that tax dollars are not wasted and that the people who need the temporary assistance are getting it,” said Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in a statement.
The bills would have to clear the Assembly on Tuesday and then the Senate, which are both controlled by Republicans, before going to Walker. His spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said he would “review” the bills when they reach his desk.
The bills up for Assembly approval on Tuesday would:
— Require that a photo be added to FoodShare debit cards, but store clerks would not have to look at the image before completing a sale. Requiring FoodShare participants to present a card with a photo on it in order to purchase food would require a federal waiver, something the bill does not seek.
However, the federal government would have to sign off on the state’s implementation plan.
The changes envisioned raise numerous issues that could result in people being denied food, Tussler said.
— Allow a FoodShare recipient to receive three replacement debit cards, known as Quest cards, each year no questions asked. After a fourth request in a year, the person would be notified that they could be investigated for fraud. After a fifth request, the person would be investigated.
The state Department of Health Services in 2013 instituted a pilot policy where it sent letters to FoodShare recipients who asked for four or more cards a year. The department determined the pilot to be successful in reducing the requests for replacements, and plans to implement it statewide in December. The bill would put the policy into law.
— Require the state to seize all FoodShare benefits if the account has not been accessed in six months or more. The recipient could not access the benefits again until they make a request for it to be reactivated or they reapply for the program.
The state would also be required to expunge any benefits more than a year old that have not been used, even if the card is in active use. That is a slight shift from current policy under which benefits are only expunged if there’s been no activity on the card for a year.
— Deny unemployment benefits for seven years to anyone who impersonates someone to obtain benefits two times. Anyone who conceals information in order to qualify in two subsequent years would also lose benefits for seven years.
Legal Action of Wisconsin, a law firm representing low-income people, said they were concerned the change would result in people who make honest mistakes in the complicated application losing unemployment benefits.
Why wait until the temperatures warm to enjoy an outdoor music festival? On Feb. 7, Bay View bar Burnhearts will present its third annual Mitten Fest — a free, one-day music festival benefiting the Hunger Task Force.
Burnhearts owner William Seidel says the idea came as a result of an annual summer block party, a giant bash that takes over more than a block of Potter Avenue at the end of June. Two years ago, Seidel and the Burnhearts team got tired of waiting a whole year to host another event and realized there was nothing more Wisconsin than holding a music festival in the middle of a February afternoon.
Seidel said there were some doubts. He and the bar were inundated with comments like, “‘This is not going to work, and nobody’s gonna show up.’”
But the first two years proved the doubters wrong. Both concerts featured strong attendance and last year, Mitten Fest collected more than $2,500 for the Hunger Task Force, along with a ton of food and 36 giant bags of winter clothing.
“(The winter placement) gives people a little bit of light before the end of a dark tunnel,” Seidel said. “Going on its third year, it has become quite a big event.”
This year’s concert will feature Canopies, Greatest Lakes, Towers and Sin Bad. DJ Chris Schulist, a co–founder of local hip hop rarities record label Dope Folks Records, will provide music between sets.
Seidel said deciding who to select “boils down to who hasn’t played at the festival yet,” in part, but he also likes to pick acts that are on the upswing.
This year’s bands certainly qualify.
Synthpop quintet Canopies was recently featured on college radio tracker CMJ, thanks to promotion from WMSE. Greatest Lakes’ dreamy single “Looking In” was listed as one of the 10 best Milwaukee songs of 2014 by the Journal Sentinel’s Piet Levy. And both Towers and Sin Bad made waves when they debuted in the garage rock scene this year.
Seidel said playing in the cold can be daunting for bands, but he’s able to convince them to sign on by reminding them that “people who come don’t forget that show.”
In addition to the music and a craft fair, Mitten Fest will feature specialty drinks provided by the event’s sponsors: Central Waters Brewery, in Amherst, Wisconsin, and Founders Brewing Company, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Seidel said Founders was invited because you can’t have a Mitten Fest without inviting a brewery from the “Mitten State.”
The tastiest beverage might be Burnhearts’ own concoction: a specialty brandy old-fashioned. “We take old used bourbon barrels and fill them with Korbel brandy,” Seidel says. “In one of them we put 40 pounds of fresh ginger and simple syrup, and then we age it for quite a few months. The other one we put in all the fixings for a traditional Wisconsin old-fashioned.” The cocktails are sold at Mitten Fest and then the empty barrels are turned over to Central Waters, which will age beer in them for a year and sell the result at next year’s Mitten Fest.
It’s a tantalizing treat that Seidel said always draws attendees into Burnhearts — but they’re not the only local beneficiaries. “There are lots of other bars and restaurants in the neighborhood, and they love it when people show up to get warm, have something to eat or drink, and then head back,” Seidel said.
First-timers, take heed of Seidel’s parting suggestion: “Bring three pairs of socks, and make sure you have nice warm boots.”
Burnhearts’ third annual Mitten Fest is noon–8 p.m. on Feb. 7, at 2599 S. Logan Ave. Attendance is free, but food, clothing and cash donations for Hunger Task Force are encouraged. Visit facebook.com/burnheartsbar for more details.