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Starting next year in Wisconsin, some able-bodied parents will have to work or undergo job training for 30 hours a week to receive food stamps. Republicans say the requirements, along with other welfare changes, will encourage self-sufficiency, but some critics are worried the requirement could kick needy parents off the rolls.

Even without that requirement, the number of parents with children on food stamps is already on the decline. The state Department of Health Services says decreasing caseloads is due to a growing economy: as more families thrive, fewer need food stamps, known as FoodShare.

But a report from the UW-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty says if that was the case, they would expect the measure for market-income poverty to go down. Instead, it’s increased.

According to Timothy Smeeding, author of the IRP report and Lee Rainwater Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Economics, that leaves unanswered questions.

“The question is really simple. What happened to these people? Why are they no longer participating when it looks they need it?” he said.

During the recession, the FoodShare caseload “rose dramatically” in Wisconsin, reaching a high of about 860,000 in the summer of 2013, the IRP report says. But by November of last year, that number had dropped to almost 666,000.

Some of that decline could be due to Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to place FoodShare work requirements on able-bodied adults without children in 2015, the report says. After three months, adults who have not found or looked for work, or undergone job training are booted from the rolls.

But it appears the decline has affected adults with and without children. From January 2015 to November 2016, FoodShare caseloads decreased by over 100,000 recipients, or about 60,000 households. Over that time period, the number of FoodShare households with children fell from about 162,442 to 144,953. 

But the FoodShare work requirements specifically didn’t apply to adults with children. So why did FoodShare caseloads of adults with children decrease?

When asked about FoodShare declines in the past, Walker’s administration said families felt the effects of economic recovery after the recession and no longer needed FoodShare to feed their households.

But according to the 10th annual Wisconsin Poverty Report by the IRP, while a growing economy is helpful, it likely doesn’t fully explain the decrease. If families simply no longer needed food stamps, the report said, market-income poverty — a measure of poverty based on private sources of income — should have declined. Instead, it went slightly up from January 2015 to January 2016, from 22.7 percent to 23.2 percent.

“The market-income poverty rate in 2016, 23.2 percent, suggests that the economic recovery in Wisconsin is no longer driving down poverty through increased earnings … Earnings rise because of employment and wage growth. While both of these increased modestly in Wisconsin during this period, the lowest income earners do not seem to be benefiting,” the report says.

“The growing economy probably did pull some people off of (FoodShare), but not the working poor,” Smeeding said. “We can see the working poor increased.”

Asked to respond to the caseload decline in light an increase in market-income poverty, DHS spokeswoman Julie Lund pointed to other economic statistics like the state’s all-time low unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, all-time high of number of labor force participatns and increased median household income.

Lund also noted that since the 2015 work requirements and FoodShare Employment and Training program (FSET), 27,000 able-bodied adults have moved off the FoodShare rolls and into the workforce. But the program has also resulted in recipients losing their FoodShare benefits 91,100 times, though some were later reinstated.

Smeeding said he was disappointed with the DHS response.

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“I’m not pleased with the answer,” he said. “They haven’t told us what’s going on here. They’re claiming higher earnings (is why former FoodShare recipients are) no longer receiving benefits. Great, how many is that? Show me. Tell me.”

Smeeding thinks evaluation is particularly important as new work requirements will expand to able-bodied adults aged 18 to 49 with children 6 or older. The number of required working, job training, or job searching hours will also increase from 20 hours a week to 30.

Smeeding thinks “30 hours is going to be tough to get to for any single parent” juggling kids, a job, school and transportation.

“I see a lot of people being tossed off of benefits because they can't coordinate this whole thing,” he said.

Those changes make evaluation even more important, he said, but Walker vetoed an evaluation of FSET program in the state budget.

“To do something like this without any evaluation is ridiculous,” Smeeding said.

Asked if DHS expects FoodShare caseloads to further drop with the new work requirements, Lund said that they may drop “as more people are able to overcome the barriers that prevent them from getting the training and assistance required to begin, or return to, the career they choose.”

“Our experience is that most people WANT to work, and Wisconsin’s FSET program is aimed at helping all able-bodied adults reach their employment goals so they are no longer dependent on government services,” Lund wrote.

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