The state Assembly approved a package of five bills last week they say will reform state benefits' programs, including a work requirement for certain housing subsidies and a measure that seeks to chip away at the so-called benefits cliff - that point where the loss of benefits by going to work takes away more than the job brings in.
Most of the headlines about state politics of late have revolved around transportation and taxes and free speech on campus, but the benefits' reforms would have significant impact on lives in the lower-wage working world, for better or for worse.
State Rep. Paul Tittl (R-Manitowoc), who voted in favor of the measures, said the bills would help individuals move from government dependence to independence by encouraging worker training and rewarding work.
"The people I have interacted with appreciate and want the dignity of being able to go to work," Tittl said. "If employment is the people of Wisconsin's goal, then it should be mine, too. This package of legislation provides incentives to work and move away from government dependence."
Among the various pieces of legislation, Tittl said, are bills to help children of W-2 participants stay in school and one that creates a pilot program to require able-bodied adults to satisfy work requirements to receive housing assistance.
The benefits cliff measure is specifically targeting Wisconsin Shares, which provides low-wage parents with child-care subsidies. A fourth bill expands drug testing and treatment programs in W-2 - which Tittl says will help more people who want to work but struggle with substance abuse - while a fifth measure would study mobility grants to help those receiving unemployment benefits relocate to areas with more available jobs.
"We know programs that incentivize work can be successful," Tittl said. "My goal for these programs is to help people temporarily and get them back into the work force."
Assembly majority leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) also praised the package.
"We need more people to be work force ready," Steineke said. "With more than 1 million jobs available through the employment website Job Center of Wisconsin, the missing piece is connecting and encouraging workers to move into work placement and out of government dependence. I am happy to vote in favor of the legislation today that will help people find work and move toward personal independence."
One of the most significant pieces of the package is the benefits cliff bill, authored by Rep. Jesse Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek).
"The benefit cliff that exists within the Wisconsin Shares program is a deterrent to participants who are trying to support their families," Rodriguez said. "This legislation creates an off-ramp so participants will gradually leave the program as their income grows."
Under current law, when a participant's income exceeds 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, he or she is no longer eligible for the program, creating a benefit cliff. Under the legislation, Rodriguez said, to diminish the drop-off, when a participant's income exceeds 200 percent FPL, he or she will have their copayment increased by a small amount in relation to their income - $1 for every $3 their income exceeds 200 percent FPL.
"Instead of an automatic cutoff, there will be a gradual reduction so workers are not penalized for accepting promotions and continuing to seek positive career opportunities," she said. "This bill incentivizes hard work and helps families achieve true independence."
The public benefit reform package now moves to the Senate for consideration.
Not all measures passed by the Assembly last week sought to reward workers. One bill would enable fines of up to $150 a month to be imposed on families whose children miss five unexcused days of school in a semester.
Republicans say it's a good way to teach responsibility; Democrats say it's unfair to the working poor.
Quality and quantity
Meanwhile, a new report by the left-leaning think tank COWS says lawmakers need to look at the quality of jobs low-income workers have in addition to the number of jobs.
"In Wisconsin, policy makers seem to increasingly assume that work, and work alone, can provide a decent standard of living," COWS stated. "However, working families continue to face a slew of challenges - low wages, inadequate benefits, insufficient hours - generated by the very jobs that are supposed to be the answer."
In the report, "When Work is Not Enough," the group says there is a disconnect between state policies and the realities of Wisconsin families working in jobs at or near the poverty line.
"While work is part of the solution to lifting families out of poverty, it's certainly not the sole factor," Laura Dresser, COWS associate director, said. "Jobs with low wages, unpredictable schedules, or shoddy benefit packages weigh heavily on working families that are struggling to get ahead."
In Wisconsin, Dresser said, almost 1 in 10 working families, or 8.1 percent, earn less than the official U.S. poverty threshold. That threshold is so low that living standards at even two times the poverty line are meager, she said, while more than one in four Wisconsin working families make less than twice the official poverty threshold.
According to the group, the problems of income are directly related to the quality of jobs. More than one-in-four workers in Wisconsin (27.5 percent) hold poverty-wage jobs, defined as jobs paying less than $11.56 per hour, and while 80 percent of workers in better paying jobs get health insurance through their employers, just half of workers in poverty-wage jobs have employer-provided health insurance, COWS stated.
"Indeed, observing that work often failed to support families sufficiently was a key reason that the state invested serious resources in child care subsidies and health insurance for working families two decades ago," COWS states. "But commitment to these programs is declining and barriers to accessing them are on the rise."
COWS asserts that Wisconsin programs to support work can create unrealistic barriers to the supports in child care or health insurance that families need, and even more are being proposed. For example, many employers in the service sectors post schedules and cancel shifts with little notice, yet to receive the child care subsidy, workers must provide advance notice of schedules. The result is that many workers can not access the benefit, the group argues.
"The problem is not a lack of commitment to work among Wisconsin residents, but the persistent structural barriers to stable, decently-paid work," Dresser said, "Inadequate investments in support for these workers and misaligned program structures do not accommodate the realities of low-wage work, nor do they help hard working families thrive. To support work, we do not need to erect new barriers to these programs, rather the state should work on greater investment in and access to health insurance, medical care, food, and child care for Wisconsin's hard working families."
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