MILWAUKEE — At the end of a strip shopping mall and inside an office with a warren of cubicles, Deatre McNeal was back at ResCare, a company hired by the state of Wisconsin to help people who are poor and sometimes hungry find work to avoid losing their food stamps.
Boy, did McNeal need help. The $353 the state deposited each month on her Wisconsin Quest card — to pay for groceries for herself and her then-17-year-old son — hadn’t arrived. Also, recent training to become a nursing assistant had led McNeal only to a pair of temporary assembly line jobs, which led to prepping vegetables for the salad bar at a Golden Corral, which had hired too many people and cut her hours to zero.
In one cubicle, a ResCare case manager phoned a state agency that had records showing an income for a job McNeal hadn’t held for months. In another cubicle, a ResCare workforce coordinator brainstormed with her about a round of unpaid work experience to test whether she was suited to train for jobs in residential health-care facilities. “Things need to get better,” said McNeal, 31, in a blue hoodie and a headband over brown and red braids during her October appointment. “I want to complete — to have something to show for it.”
Starting this month, McNeal joins a large swath of poor Wisconsinites who need to document that they are working or striving to get a job for at least 80 hours a month. They must do so to receive FoodShare, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — food stamps.
Wisconsin — with its work requirement set to expand next year and a focus on employment and training — is a role model for the Trump administration’s vision of food aid for poor Americans who could go hungry, ratcheting up what many of them are expected to do to get government help.
The debate over work requirements for food assistance was at the core of a months-long dispute between the House and Senate over a farm bill. House Republicans were eager to expand requirements in ways that largely parallel Wisconsin’s approach — an idea Democrats have long resisted. A deal just struck over the bill excludes those plans, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, confirmed on Thursday.
Still, as part of a push by the administration to compel work by beneficiaries of government programs for the poor, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue dispatched a letter this month to every governor, prodding them to impose statewide work requirements on able-bodied food stamp recipients without dependent children — potentially affecting nearly 4 million people in the three dozen states that do not do so now.
Wisconsin is expanding the work requirements for many people getting food aid, even though ground-level evidence suggests the requirements may be hurting more than helping. Gov. Scott Walker (R), the architect of the FoodShare changes and some of the nation’s most conservative revisions to other safety-net programs, resisted efforts to undertake a formal evaluation of the impact on people at risk of hunger.
Walker was defeated this month for a third term. The Democratic victor, Tony Evers, state schools superintendent, has not spoken about food aid, though he said last week that he is uncomfortable with work requirements for Medicaid that federal health-care officials recently approved at Walker’s request. Even if Evers decides to oppose the existing work requirement for food assistance — or its expansion — the incoming governor could not reverse much of Wisconsin’s system without cooperation from the state legislature, which remains under Republican control.
Under rules that began in April 2015, able-bodied Wisconsinites without dependent children who do not meet the work requirements for three months are locked out of FoodShare for three years before they can reapply.
Wisconsin is among a growing number of states that have imposed work requirements that were lifted during the Great Recession. But nowhere else in the country has focused as heavily on employment and training programs, relying on outside contractors, including for-profits, such as the Kentucky-based ResCare.
Because of the state investment, “we are able to provide that support to anyone who comes in the door,” said Rebecca McAtee, who directs FoodShare for the state.
Nowhere else has gone as far as the Badger State plans to go next October when, as part of nine conservative social policies Walker signed into law this year, Wisconsin will extend the work requirements to parents of school-age children and, if the federal government allows it, expand the required hours from 20 per week to 30. When parents fail to comply, their children’s aid can continue, but theirs will not, leading to an overall drop in a family’s food assistance.
With the state’s unemployment rate having dropped to a historic low of 2.8 percent in May, Walker and other proponents have said this is an ideal time to help people into jobs so they become self-sufficient.
But the next time unemployment rises, “we are going to see hunger increase,” said Maureen Fitzgerald, advocacy director of the Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force. “The time limit cuts people off food aid after three months, so if there is no job to be had, people will have no help with food for three years.” Even under best-case circumstances, jobs can be scarce in poor neighborhoods, pay too little, or be beyond the reach of people who cannot afford a car.
The ground-level effects of the rules that began 3½ years ago are evident here in Milwaukee, where deep pockets of poverty have led to the greatest concentration of people affected by the policy. ResCare has received from the state 67,000 referrals for people in the city who must meet the work requirement and were not fulfilling it. Unless she finds a job in a hurry, McNeal will become one of them now that her only child, Traveon, turned 18 and is no longer considered a dependent under state rules, even though he is still in high school.
Since the requirements began, the number of people getting FoodShare across the state has fallen from more than 800,000 to fewer than 650,000.
Nearly 29,000 FoodShare recipients who have been in employment and training programs have gotten jobs, state figures show. But more than 100,000 people have lost their benefits when they used up their three-month time limits, nearly half of them in Milwaukee.
Behind those broad contours lie many questions that state officials say they do not have the information to answer: How many of the people who got jobs were subject to the work requirement? How many with food aid volunteered for the employment and training program? How many able-bodied adults without children were exempt because they were pregnant, homeless, in addiction treatment or physically or mentally unable to work?
Nor do data show how much state and federal money has been saved as the caseload has shrunk — the Republican rationale for the requirements.
“It is difficult to draw any conclusions regarding the program’s effectiveness in preparing individuals for employment,” Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau concluded last year. Among the unknowns, a bureau report pointed out, are how many people got full-time work rather than part-time jobs and, how many stopped getting food aid because they had begun earning enough that they did not need it.
“That’s the $50 million question,” said Fitzgerald of the Hunger Task Force.
According to the most recent statewide data, 1 in 6 people facing the work requirement who are referred to programs such as ResCare enroll in them.
Steve Reinhold, project director in Milwaukee for ResCare, is concerned about the ripple effects of traumas that can mar the lives of FoodShare recipients — abuse, family members in jail and other bleak experiences linked to poverty and unemployment. “What we are finding is there are other things taking priority in their life and not this,” Reinhold said.
The average wage of clients who get jobs, through the program or by themselves, is $13.25 an hour.
Those who find work can get help with transportation, child care and work clothes for up to 90 days.
This approach has led some people into steady jobs. Michael Love, 33, who lives in a duplex with his retired parents and three brothers, had worked evenings at a Walgreens four days a week ever since he was a high school sophomore until he was fired before last Christmas. He says he was let go for giving cash to a customer who had purchased an item and immediately returned it. His $190 a month in FoodShare, plus his paycheck of under $300 every two weeks, helped him bring home groceries for the family.
“It was the first and only job I’d ever had, and now it was gone,” Love said. To keep the food aid, “I had to be working.”
Love at first volunteered as a janitor in one of ResCare’s offices to meet his required work hours. In February, he took a basic computer class. In March, he took a month’s training for an IT job. An offer through a temp agency didn’t work out, because the position was an hour’s drive away and his family shares one car. But in June, he was hired full time by a naval contractor to do electrical assembly, putting together wires from drawings.
His paychecks are $580 a week. “I’m able to get by with my own money,” he said. “I’m doing a heck of a lot better than I was before.”
Others have lost their help in getting food, even when it seems they should not have been cut off.
In the fall of 2015, Patrick Moran was at the checkout at Lucky Supermarket with a frozen pepperoni pizza and Coke, when his green Quest food-aid card suddenly did not work. “I was embarrassed,” he recalled. He left his food with the cashier and did not have dinner that night.
When he checked with the state, he was told he needed to work 20 hours a week to get his card again.
He protested it has been difficult for him to work since he fell from a second-story roof of an abandoned house he was helping a friend fix up, leaving him with five broken vertebrae and a damaged nerve. The state did not tell him he might qualify for a medical exemption.
“I’m broken,” he said, leaning on a cane as he sat in the kitchen of a dingy apartment he shares with a roommate. “I’ve worked all my life, and I can’t even get food. Yeesh.”
At 49, he has started to work again, for A Plus Home Care, as a part-time caregiver at $9 an hour, but, when he tried this year to get his FoodShare benefits back, the state sent a letter. On one line, the May letter says, “The income we counted for you is over the program limit.” On the next, it says he has not met the work requirement.” The following page wrongly lists his income as $0.
His roommate shares his Meals on Wheels delivery with Moran. They go together sometimes to a food pantry, but often are out of bread, eggs — the basics. “I can go for a couple days without eating, no problem,” Moran said. “If we have food, I’ll eat. If we don’t have food, I don’t eat.”
Over at ResCare, McNeal, trying to get her benefits back and a job — or at least an unpaid work experience — before her son turned 18, said the visit in mid-October left her hopeful.
After her case manager explained to a state eligibility worker that the income records were wrong, the monthly $353 would flow back onto her Quest card. The workforce coordinator gave her job leads. An Outback Steakhouse that was hiring. A car dealership paying $10 an hour plus commission.
As for the work experience so that she can train for jobs at community-based residential facilities, none of those slots were available. So McNeal agreed to try to get work experience in child care, since that would count toward the kind of training she wants.
“If you do really great, they will hire you,” the workforce coordinator, Kim Byrd, told her. “We aren’t talking about temp jobs. We aren’t talking about wages where you cannot raise your family.”
A week later, McNeal’s hope was fading. Just $81 had arrived on her Quest card, and she didn’t know why.
When she went to a nonprofit group for the work experience in child care, she was told she couldn’t enroll because her last work experience had been at a different branch of the same organization. She asked Byrd for another referral and, when she went there, she was told she wasn’t a good fit because she had no history of interest in child care.
“I went to all my appointments,” McNeal said, “and I haven’t achieved a thing.”
Not knowing what else to do, she began to apply for more jobs — ones that she is hearing about on her own.