Tim Smeeding: How to keep winning the war on poverty in Wisconsin

Tim Smeeding: How to keep winning the war on poverty in Wisconsin

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Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch wrote a nice column last week about our recent Wisconsin Poverty Report. She applauded the progress Wisconsin has made and proposed pushing harder to reduce poverty.

We agree on a lot: Unemployment among men, especially ex-offenders, should be the next focus area, especially in Milwaukee. Also, I am interested in any new approach to government-subsidized housing that helps people “move in, move up, and move out” — and would love to hear the details.

But then we move to other areas where she says “we part ways,” and indeed we do.

We both believe that the long-term solution to poverty for the able-bodied non-elderly is a secure job that pays well — what we differ on is how to get there. I know that a part-time, low-wage job alone won’t do the trick, and I suppose she does, too.

Lt. Gov. Kleefisch and her colleagues have already attached work requirements to the SNAP food and nutrition program for able-bodied single people without dependents. They have managed to reduce SNAP by 40,000 such people, many of whom are young ex-offenders in Milwaukee who can’t find jobs because of their records and a lack of jobs in central Milwaukee.

So, no job, no eat — that seems cruel to me. Now, they plan to attach work requirements, drug testing and time limits to housing vouchers and Medicaid, with added work tests for single parents on SNAP. These big-stick approaches are designed to punish people who need aid and who cannot get along on low-wage work alone. The lieutenant governor is right that I do not like these approaches.

Should we require work for able-bodied people who could take a job and who are not drug-dependent? Yes, but only if that job helps the person to a better life. One way is to make sure that parents have affordable, quality child care for their children while they work. Another is to leave Medicaid alone. Better efforts at both child care and affordable medical care would also lower expenses and reduce poverty, leaving low-income families more to spend on food, clothing and shelter.

What else do we need to create more secure, well-paying jobs? Simple: A guaranteed job in a private or nonprofit workplace (call it a “paid apprenticeship”) if none is available to the person being forced to work, and a higher minimum wage for all workers in Wisconsin.

Milwaukee is losing population and employment while nearby counties are doing very well. Either create more jobs in Milwaukee or help those in central Milwaukee get to where the jobs are, and make sure the employer will hire them. Other areas of the state also are in need of jobs. So if we want to force people to work, they have to have a decent secure job to take.

As for a well-paying job, 29 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Ours is $7.25 — not enough by itself to bring a mother with two children above the poverty line if she worked full time year-round. This is why we have the earned income tax credit to push her wage over the poverty line.

But why not a $9 or $10 minimum wage for Wisconsin? That would get our working mother really close to the poverty line for her family and reduce outlays on the earned income tax credit. With a national $10-an-hour wage, for every job lost, 20 other workers would get a raise. I can take that tradeoff, especially in our improving economy where employers say there are not enough workers.

We are not sure what is going to happen next. Will more people in Wisconsin get better jobs and further reduce poverty because of bigger paychecks? Or will people be cut off from basic aid and forced out of subsidized housing because they are drug-addicted or cannot find or hold a job?

The one thing you can be sure of is that the Wisconsin Poverty Report will continue to present the good news with the bad, so that Wisconsin residents know if state programs and the state economy work for the unfortunate. Our annual poverty report is the Wisconsin Idea in action, and I am a proud and strong supporter of both.

With a national $10-an-hour minimum wage, for every job lost, 20 other workers would get a raise.

Smeeding is the lead author of the Wisconsin Poverty Report, a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, and former director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW-Madison.

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