Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Wisconsin's attempt to tie food to jobs pays off


Residents must work at least 80 hours a month or their benefits are cut off.

Wisconsin has announced that significant reforms of its statewide food benefits program have led to nearly 15,000 gaining meaningful employment, joining a national trend toward putting more food stamp recipients to work.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker led a campaign to require able-bodied adults without dependents who participate in FoodShare, the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to work at least 80 hours a month or risk limits to their benefits beginning in April 2015.
The existing FoodShare Employment and Training (FSET) program was redesigned last year to help participants meet the federally mandated criteria while providing them free resources they need to enter the job market so that they can be weaned off government benefits.
Fifteen months after the program's approximately $60 million recreation, Walker announced that Wisconsin Department of Health Services data shows that 14,400 FSET participants, 38 percent of those eligible, have found employment, averaging $11.99 per hour and working a little over 32 hours a week, which is significantly more than the state's minimum wage and the minimum requirement to keep food benefits.
"Wisconsin is unique because we made a significant investment in our employment training program for able-bodied adults through the FoodShare program," Walker said in a statement upon the release of the data.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-funded program supplements the state's other workforce development programs by offering a number of free resources such as educational courses, soft skills training, transportation and child care to support participants' efforts to support themselves.
Participants have a series of meetings with a coordinator to help identify their personal goals and barriers to employment to create a customized career plan.
Whereas the state's Department of Health Services previously contracted with over 50 agencies to administer the FSET, that number was reduced to seven with the move toward a regional model designed to streamline support for participants through better coordination with other workforce initiatives in the state.
In June, House Republicans' multi-part "A Better Way" national policy agenda recommended making work requirements for the federally funded but state-administered food stamp program more stringent after citing fears that increasing numbers of recipients are capable of holding down a job.
The 1996 landmark welfare reform package signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton limited able-bodied adults without dependents who did not work from receiving more than three months of food stamp benefits in a 36-month period. States may request waivers from this requirement in periods of high unemployment.
This year, 40 states will have a food stamp time limit in place and 22 of them are re-implementing the policy for the first time since the beginning of the recession. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Wisconsin is one ofonly five states this year to assure that all individuals facing the time limit are guaranteed a job training or workfare slot.
FSET participants can benefit from a number of different training and certificate programs for fields like healthcare, information technology, construction and sales.
Kevin Moore, whose role as administrator of Wisconsin's Department of Health Service's Health Care Access and Accountability division includes overseeing the FoodShare benefits received by nearly 800,000 residents, told theWashington Examiner that tailoring the needs of the individual with the local labor market has been essential to the job training initiative's success despite being a relatively new program.
"We've been very blessed in Wisconsin to have a low unemployment rate, and for us that serves as more motivation to make sure we are aligning the needs of our employers with the skill sets that we are developing through programs like FSET," Moore said. The state's unemployment rate in July 2016 was 4.2 percent.
Moore said he is "very pleased" to see that of the 38,010 individuals who enrolled in FSET this past year, just over 23,000 were subject to the work requirements while the rest volunteered to participate.
He said the program is designed to help develop this initiative while taking into account the challenges many face in finding employment, noting for example they have modified the program within the past few months to take into account the homeless.
Walker announced he is directing at least $4.5 million in funds to combat high unemployment rates in Milwaukee, following long-simmering racial tensions that boiled over this summer after a police shooting. It's an investment Moore said is designed to help ensure that the state is adapting to local community and business needs.
"Some of the barriers they face might take a larger investment ... because for some of the population it may take a number of efforts and it may take a little bit longer to be able address some of the barriers that are out there to get them the skills, to get them the comfort level that they need to get into workforce," he said.
Since the requirements took effect, critics of the plan have pointed out that over 50,000 people have lost their FoodShare eligibility.
Moore said they are working to reduce that number by refining the referral process, getting more feedback from stakeholders and ensuring potential participants have all the information necessary to make a decision about meeting the federal requirement.
"The best way to combat, whether it be poverty or the best way to combat hunger, is to get a good job ... to provide a path for people to continue to grow and develop," Moore said.
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