Scott Walker Could ‘Bankrupt Food Banks’ in Wisconsin

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Scott Walker Could ‘Bankrupt Food Banks’ in Wisconsin

Jenn Stanley

Changes to Gov. Scott Walker's 2013-2015 budget have dropped at least 15,000 out-of-work Wisconsin residents from the state's food stamps program.

Wisconsin food banks are struggling to feed an additional 15,000-plus out-of-work residents who have lost their food stamp benefits under Gov. Scott Walker’s new policy.

Walker’s 2013-2015 budget created a law that requires able-bodied people with no children at home who receive food stamps from the state’s FoodShare program to work at least 80 hours a month, or look for work, to stay in the program. The law went into effect in April and at least 25 percent of the 60,000 people who fit that description have lost their benefits, according to Department of Health Services (DHS) data.

About 770,000 people in Wisconsin received FoodShare benefits as of September, according to DHS. Though the law automatically enrolls eligible recipients in a job placement program called FoodShare Employment and Training (FSET), only about 4,500 people found jobs through the program. About half of the able-bodied and childless adult recipients live in Milwaukee County. Seven percent of those people were placed in jobs through FSET.

Walker argued that the FoodShare work requirement was intended to make people more self-sufficient. In a statement about the work program, Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), chairman of the Wisconsin State Assembly’s Committee on Public Benefit Reform, said that it is working as intended.

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“The FSET program was created to help guide able-bodied adults back into the workforce, or put them on the path to gainful employment while remaining on FoodShare,” Born said. “So far we have seen thousands of individuals follow the FSET program and secure employment as a result. It is important we continue to enact reforms and transition people from reliance on government to independence.”

The federal food stamp program requires able-bodied recipients to work, but the requirement is often waived in states where economic conditions are not favorable to those seeking jobs. Wisconsin was one of those states before the 2013 requirement was passed.

Wisconsin has 14 counties, including Milwaukee County, in which the labor market is too weak for the federal government to enforce job requirements for food stamp recipients. Those counties contain about a quarter of the state’s overall population and half of the state’s people of color. Milwaukee’s unemployment rate stands at 6.3 percent while the overall state unemployment rate is 4.3 percent.

Advocates pointed out that the loss of food stamps does not create more jobs, but increases Wisconsin’s food insecure population.

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force, a supplier of food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters with emergency food, told the Wisconsin State Journal that the program will bankrupt the state’s food banks. In October, Tussler sent a letter to DHS Secretary Kitty Rhoades, Walker, and lawmakers asking that the time limit to find work be waived because of the high unemployment rate.

“The Department of Health Services must understand that a substantial increase in the need for emergency food caused by a loss of food buying power (FoodShare) will result in wide scale shortages in Milwaukee,” Tussler wrote in the letter.

“They will bankrupt our food banks,” Tussler told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Some Wisconsin food banks are already seeing an increase in need. Jenny Czerkas, director of the River Food Pantry in Madison, told Rewire that the pantry began seeing a higher volume of clients in the beginning of the summer.

“The changed requirements is definitely the most logical explanation for it,” Czerkas said. “But we’re trying to be more creative with our fundraising efforts and our newsletters. We’re trying to tell people that there’s a bigger need and that the need is increasing.”