MILWAUKEE — The shock absorbers in James Howlett’s Ford Fusion were busted, but he and his partner, Nadine, packed their two children inside anyway. They were already homeless, and their time on food stamps was running out. They needed to fix the car and dig up documents to try to get back on welfare.
The suburban homeless shelter where they slept the night before was now in the distance as they made their way through the familiar blight of the city neighborhood that was once home. Howlett dropped Kayden, 5, at kindergarten and Cali, 3, at day care in a community center that stood amid the boarded-up houses and vacant fields surrounded by barbed wire that dot Milwaukee’s north side.
That’s when he found himself gripped by a new worry: His run-down Ford might be another barrier to government assistance.
In February, Wisconsin passed a law prohibiting food stamp recipients from owning a car valued at more than $20,000. Just how the law would work was still unclear to him, leaving Howlett to worry whether he’d have to choose between food for his family and his only car.
“They probably wouldn’t assess it at the purchase value, right?” Howlett wondered as he got back into the car. “I hope they don’t say I have to sell this. I think it should be fine. I don’t know, the way things are changing.”
The way things are changing in Wisconsin — and around much of the country — is that lawmakers are embracing increasingly aggressive measures to move the poor out of the social safety net and into the workforce.
In 2013, Wisconsin took a leading role in this trend when Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation requiring childless adults who aren’t disabled to work at least 20 hours a week to continue to qualify for food stamps. Those who didn’t do so were required to attend training programs scattered throughout the state until they could find a job.
In February, the state took it a step further: Parents of school-age children will also have to work to receive food stamps. And instead of 20 hours, they must work at least 30.
Walker pushed for the asset limitations that worried Howlett to be applied to new cases to ensure that “people with giant mansions and fancy cars don’t get welfare checks while hard-working taxpayers have to pay the bill.” The state mandated drug testing for those who live in public housing. It is preparing to cut off Medicaid for parents who are behind on child-support payments.
In all, lawmakers passed nine “welfare reform” bills, which they said will provide the motivation people need to stop relying on government help.
“We will help people when they are down and out,” Walker said in his State of the State address in January. “But for those who are able, public assistance should be a trampoline, not a hammock.”
Wisconsin has long been at the forefront of placing restrictions on government benefits. In the 1990s, Gov. Tommy Thompson led an effort to limit how long the poor could receive cash assistance. That approach appealed to President Bill Clinton, who used the state as a model for his federal changes, which reduced the number of families on welfare from 12.4 million in 1996 to 4.6 million in 2012 and transformed the government’s relationship with the poor.
The federal government is, again, following Wisconsin’s example. President Trump championed “welfare reform” this month when he signed an executive order calling for federal agencies to come up with ways to make it harder for residents to receive cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid. The House Agricultural Committee introduced a farm bill that would institute requirements similar to the ones enacted in Wisconsin.
The results in this state have been limited. Since Walker put work requirements into place, the Health Services Department said it has cut spending on food stamps by 28 percent, from $1.2 billion in 2013 to around $867 million in 2017. Officials said 25,000 food stamp recipients — out of a statewide total of 700,000 — have found work.
State officials also said that more than 86,000 people have lost their ability to get food stamps and did not report getting new jobs.
There’s been no government study examining what happened to them. State officials say they presume some got new jobs and didn’t bother to report them, but advocates say they see swelling numbers at churches and food pantries, where more and more people go looking for help.
If public assistance is a trampoline for Howlett and Nadine, who asked that her last name not be used, it is one that is vaulting them all over the Milwaukee area, with no sure ground to land on.
Their recent troubles started in November, when Nadine lost one job cleaning a suburban hospital while waiting to start another five blocks from her apartment. Then Howlett’s car broke down, he had to dramatically cut back hours as a Lyft driver, and they couldn’t afford rent anymore.
The eviction came next. They said they tried to apply for an emergency loan from the state but were disqualified because they were not receiving cash assistance at the time, even though they were still eligible for food stamps.
“Why are there different qualifications for different benefits?” Howlett said. “I fail to understand it.”
They lived in hotels until money ran out and then tried moving to a homeless shelter in Milwaukee, but it was full. They were pointed to the suburbs, where networks of churches in Waukesha County offered warm meals and cots for them to sleep. There was even a partition so their family could have a touch of privacy.
“You try to keep your spirits up because you don’t want the kids to feel like something is wrong,” Howlett said. “Then you start to spiral. That’s what it’s like in Wisconsin. Help is so close, and so far away.”
“Wisconsin is historically strong,” Walker declared in his January State of the State address. His evidence: Unemployment is at 2.9 percent, and manufacturing continues to grow, with 13,000 more jobs expected thanks to the arrival of Chinese electronics maker Foxconn.
Those conditions make it a perfect time to reexamine public benefits, according to Rep. Scott Krug, the Republican chairman of the State Assembly’s Committee on Public Benefit Reform.
“As long as we have state-sanctioned day care and child care available, why not ask parents to do work activity?” Krug asked. “We have a lot of jobs coming to Wisconsin, and we need people to do the work.”
For Krug and his fellow conservative lawmakers, the latest changes also offered an opportunity to reinvigorate the “Midwest work ethic” that he says the social safety net had started to unspool. The work requirements would help, he said, rebuild “what Wisconsin is about.”
“No one is calling them frauds and cheaters,” he said. “It’s our job, as a state, to get people to where their dreams lead them.”
State Sen. LaTonya Johnson, a Democrat whose district includes Milwaukee’s north side, said those characterizations ignore the gross disparities within Wisconsin. “It doesn’t seem many in the state understand what happens in the inner city,” Johnson said.
The growth in manufacturing that’s happening in Wisconsin is largely in the suburbs along the Interstate-94 corridor, beyond the reach of public transportation. What’s growing on the north side are food pantries — in vacated strip malls where nonprofits had set up, in schools and churches, and near the shells of shutdown factories.
In this part of Wisconsin, Johnson said, there are mainly service jobs with irregular schedules and low pay. Even if residents found higher-paying jobs in the suburbs, many — particularly single moms — would have to cobble together child care at odd hours because the commutes would be so far.
Instead of addressing the need, Johnson argued, her conservative counterparts were creating new problems for the poor. “For some reason, this state assumes if we penalize the parents, then their kids will still be able to eat,” she said.
LaDonna Pavetti, who researches government assistance for the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, said she expects that the results in Wisconsin will be similar to those of Clinton’s time limits on cash-assistance programs.
During the first two years of the program, amid a booming economy, it appeared the tough-love approach worked, studies showed. More were getting jobs, and their incomes were rising.
Five years after the initiative, though, it appears those gains had been lost. A 2001 evaluation commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found virtually no difference in income and employment between those who were subjected to work requirements and a control group that was not. Whatever their status, parents still had to contend with the challenge of finding good-paying jobs and consistent hours in places where they might be limited — with less to keep them afloat.
In the mid-1990s, the center’s data shows, about 80 out of every 100 families living below the poverty line in Wisconsin received cash assistance. Now, that number is about 20 of every 100.
Walker and the legislature have invested more than $50 million in training to help low-income families become self-sufficient. Those who don’t meet the work requirements have to go to training centers for 80 hours a month, where case managers help with résumés and interview techniques, among other skills. They also refer residents elsewhere to learn how to become welders, machinists, nursing assistants or other types of professionals.
In the last six months, state officials said, 44 percent of participants reported gaining employment after going through the program. They average 35 hours per week, at a wage of $12.88. That still might not be enough for some. To afford a two-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee, according to a 2017 study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a family must work 40 hours a week at $17.83.
At the end of the workday, the continued financial hardship of many who found new jobs meant they would end up looking for help in the same places as people who had been kicked off government assistance.
Between 2013 and 2018, the number of meals distributed through the statewide nonprofit Feeding Wisconsin jumped from 38 million to 60 million, according to David Lee, its executive director. At another nonprofit, UMOS, the number of families served in Milwaukee during that period nearly quintupled from 11,000 to 53,000.
Howlett and Nadine were searching for help everywhere they could. Nadine had gone through the job-training program and found it a waste. She had a résumé and a skill set; she just needed a job. Howlett couldn’t manage one of those new manufacturing jobs coming to the state because a knee injury a few years ago cut short his job as a heavy machinery operator.
So, he said, he worked full time driving for Lyft. Together, they earned about $2,000 each month, enough to rent a four-bedroom apartment with no doorknobs and unsealed windows that did little against Wisconsin’s winter gusts.
Because their income was increasing, the couple received less from the state. Their food stamp benefits decreased each month, from $400 to $63 — which made them proud. “We didn’t need any more than that,” Howlett said.
In February, after they were evicted, they sold their stove and put what they could in a storage unit, which was where they headed after dropping off the kids at day care.
They had $43.33 left in their checking account, $123.88 on a prepaid checking card and a $300 car repair ahead of them.
“Thank God for the church,” Nadine said, because it had offered to pay for the repairs.
They drove to the storage facility. Nadine pulled out a spiral notebook and opened it to a checklist, written in big red letters, of things they needed to reapply for food stamps and cash assistance. “Birth Certificate.” “SS Card.” “Letter from Shelter.” “Bank Statement.” “Pay stubs.” She grabbed a small box filled with papers, sitting atop plastic tubs of baby clothes.
“We tried to save all the kids’ toys, but we couldn’t save them all,” Howlett said. He pushed aside a Spider-Man backpack and began playing with the arms of Kayden’s toy Godzilla.
“I feel like crying, thinking about my babies,” he said. “Why are they making these situations harder? This is already hard enough. It’s always work harder, sell your car, do more, do more, do more. We were doing more, and then they didn’t want to help.”
“Come on,” Nadine said, “we have stuff to do.”
She was frustrated, too. She had heard stories of people selling off their food stamps in grocery store parking lots and on Facebook. She figured those were the people the government wanted to target — she and Howlett were just collateral damage.
“You ever think the government just doesn’t want to help?” Nadine asked him.
“They are trying to make people who don’t need government help feel good,” he said.
“If you’re one of them, all of this stuff sounds good,” Howlett said of the work requirements. “But in reality, when you apply it, it doesn’t work.”
He turned the car on and exhaled in relief when the engine started. He tried to remain hopeful.
“We’re a little desperate right now,” Howlett said. “But it will pass.”