In the biblical story of the loaves and the fishes, Jesus fed the multitude simply because they were hungry. That was naive, it seems, as we are now learning from a Baptist minister’s son, Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker and Republicans will soon implement a law passed in 2013 that will disqualify any able-bodied adult without children who works less than 80 hours per month from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP program. Walker argues that just $123 month in food stamps, as they’ve long been called, discourages people from getting a job. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says the new approach gives people an incentive to find jobs and move off SNAP.
What Walker and Vos are arguing is that giving a person $123 month or $1,476 per year to spend on food makes them so comfortable that they won’t look for work. But how then do they afford to rent an apartment, buy clothes and other necessities? The new policy, says Sherry Tussler, executive director of Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force, “is going to create a whole new class of poor people.”
Statewide, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, some 836,000 people get SNAP assistance, and more than 62,000 are able-bodied adults without children. The analysis predicted that half of this group, or some 31,000 people, will quickly be thrown off the SNAP rolls. Exact figures are not available for Dane County, but based on its percentage of statewide SNAP recipients (about 6.3%), around 3,900 adults could be in danger of losing their SNAP benefits.
“It’s going to drive up the need for food at food pantries and meal sites,” says Kris Tazelaar, communications manager for the Madison-based Second Harvest FoodBank of Southern Wisconsin. “Because where are these people going to go?”
Under the new rules, SNAP eligibility for able-bodied adults is limited to just 90 days in any three-year period. The days needn’t be consecutive. When you hit the 90th day in a three-year period where you haven’t been working, you are terminated. For felons who have great difficulty getting jobs, for low-income people who have better luck getting an off-the-books job in the underground economy, for anyone fired who has trouble getting another job within 90 days, too bad: They will be dropped from the program.
The state has allocated more than $58 million to administer this program, whose goal is to stop some $92 million in SNAP assistance from going to the targeted recipients. “We are spending state dollars to forfeit federal money,” Tussler laments.
But the cost will likely involve more than state tax dollars. As those dropped from SNAP look elsewhere for food, that will cause a drain on charitable dollars in Wisconsin. “Those local pantries are going to have to raise more money to buy food,” Tazelaar notes. “And we at Second Harvest are going to have to raise more money to provide the food.”
Nor does the loss end there. Research by the federal Department of Agriculture shows that every $5 in SNAP assistance generates $9 in economic activity, meaning the $92 million in lost SNAP assistance equals a loss of $166 million in economic activity in Wisconsin.
The new program aims to increase “opportunities for education, vocational training and active engagement in the workforce” for FoodShare recipients, says Claire Yunker, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services. But the state is projecting about half of all able-bodied adults getting food stamps will drop out almost immediately. Most of the new program’s activity will involve determining which recipients aren’t working the 80 hours and then terminating them.
The program started in April 2014 as a pilot in three counties, but there is no data available on how many targeted recipients got jobs. Wisconsin’s past experience with such work requirements, however, has not been good. In 2011, its FoodShare Employment Training program cost $19 million to administer and had 6,021 participants, but only 179 people got jobs, at a cost of more than $8,900 per job. Yunker confirms this data is no longer available on the health department’s website.
Many able-bodied adults on SNAP are employed. They typically have low-wage jobs at places like McDonald’s or Walmart. In Ohio, some 15,000 people getting food assistance work at Walmart. Walmart has recently announced it will raise its wages to at least $10 an hour, but typically about one-third of employees cannot get more than 28 hours, so they would still be eligible for SNAP.
Walker’s approach, in short, will assure that companies can still pay less than a living wage to employees, knowing they can get SNAP and Medicaid and other government subsidies. But for those able-bodied adults who lack a job, there will be no loaves, no fishes, no food assistance of any kind.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.