Why Scott Walker’s Welfare Legacy Will Outlast Him

Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker arrives to deliver his state of the state address at the Capitol in Madison. 

Democrat Tony Evers was sworn in as the new governor of Wisconsin last week, after he bested Republican incumbent Scott Walker in November’s election. But thanks to an extraordinary session of Wisconsin’s lame-duck Republican legislature last month, Evers will likely have his hands tied if he’d like to pull back some of Walker’s most pernicious reforms, those targeting low-income people and their benefits, such as food assistance and health coverage.

Preserving Walker’s welfare legacy was a priority when the state legislature met in early December. As the media widely reported, legislators quickly voted to limit the power of the newly Democratic executive branch, but the details of these post-election laws signed by Walker foretell a difficult future for public assistance programs in the state. In consequence, Wisconsin, even under Evers, will continue to be a “model” for welfare reform, as the state has been for decades. Under Republican Governor Tommy Thompson (“Governor Get-a-Job” as The New York Times called him in 1995), Wisconsin led the way in limiting welfare benefits and eligibility in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Thompson’s Wisconsin obtained waivers of the federal program to implement harsh restrictions aimed at reducing eligibility, many of which inspired the ultimate provisions of the federal 1996 law.

Under Walker, Wisconsin again became the national laboratory for welfare reform experiments, many of which have reduced eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) and Medicaid. Some of these reforms have been adopted by the Trump administration, in its quest to find alternatives to a progressive safety net.

In 2015, Walker moved to restrict food stamps for some of the most vulnerable recipients, presaging the proposed rule that the Trump administration published last month that limits state exceptions for SNAP work requirements for childless adults in areas with high unemployment. Walker had barred Wisconsin from applying for any waivers, no matter the circumstances of an area—there are counties and cities in Wisconsin that suffer from a lack of jobs and would otherwise be eligible to waive work tests. With the rule fully in place, childless adults must prove they are working at least 20 hours per week in order to receive food stamps for longer than three months in a three-year period. 

Not surprisingly, this decision led to the loss of SNAP for tens of thousands of people. “We heard fairly quickly that our local food banks and food pantries were seeing increased demand because people had lost their benefits,” says Jen Casey, executive director of the Fondy Food Market in Milwaukee, more than half of whose shoppers receive food stamps. 

Affected individuals were placed in a job training program through SNAP Employment and Training (E&T), but Maureen Fitzgerald, director of advocacy at Hunger Task Force, a food bank in Milwaukee, says that for every one person who has found a job, three people have simply lost their benefits. Fitzgerald notes that the E&T program, administered by an out-of-state, private contractor, has not been formally evaluated. And since 2015, over 100,000 people have lost food assistance in Wisconsin. 

“The quality of the E&T is really dependent on the luck of the draw,” she says, noting that some programs, rather than genuinely offering training, might just consist of having a person search for jobs online or updating their resume. Moreover, she says, there are “no data to show, if you do get a job, that it is [due to E&T] or if it is a job that actually ladders you up and off the SNAP program—is it just temporary job after temporary job?” Individuals cycling through temp jobs are what Fitzgerald says she has seen in Milwaukee County.

“If you’re not getting valuable training for a job that [can sustain a family], then what’s the point?” Fitzgerald asks, then answers her own question: “It appears that the point is just to kick people off.”

Walker’s administration also made drastic changes to BadgerCare, the state Medicaid program, reducing eligibility for the program from individuals living at 200 percent of the poverty line to those living at just 100 percent of the poverty line—a reduction in recipients that the state claimed enabled it to expand Medicaid to childless adults. 

Last spring, Walker called a special session of the legislature to deal specifically with welfare reform—as if Walker’s earlier reforms, atop Thompson’s, were not enough. In a span of two weeks, the legislature passed nine of 10 reform measures meant to limit eligibility for public assistance. The package included drug testing requirements for SNAP and public housing recipients, as well as asset limits that require families to spend their (generally meager) savings before being eligible for public assistance. The legislature also passed a law to extend the work requirements expanded in 2015 to adults with school-age children—and up the requirement from 20 hours per week to 30. This provision resembled the work requirements that House Republicans attempted—and failed—to pass in their farm bill last year. In Wisconsin, however, most of these reforms are set to be implemented this October—if, of course, they’re funded (more on that later).

In October of last year, Wisconsin was also granted a waiver from the Trump administration to implement changes to the Medicaid program, including requiring people who live below the poverty line to pay regular premiums and to have a job in order to stay on the program. The Walker administration also attempted to get drug testing included in the waiver, but that was rejected by federal officials. Wisconsin thus joins a handful of states—New Hampshire, Arkansas, and Indiana—approved to implement Medicaid work requirements under the Trump administration’s new Medicaid policy. 

Receiving premium payments and checking participants’ work rates “is going to be a huge administrative hassle with no discernable benefit,” says Jon Peacock, executive director of the Wisconsin Budget Project. Except, of course, if one thinks that people losing Medicaid is a benefit. Arkansas implemented their work requirement in June, and as of December, about 17,000 people have lost Medicaid.

In December, Republicans convened a lame-duck legislative session to limit Evers’s ability to alter some of these policies. The legislature codified a number of these reforms into the state statutes, barred the incoming Democratic attorney general from withdrawing from the state’s participation in the lawsuit to strike down the Affordable Care Act without legislative approval, and transferred the newly elected governor’s power to make decisions about waivers and agency matters to the legislature itself.

The Evers administration is “locked into” administering waivers that have been approved, says Peacock, including the waiver that attaches work requirements and premiums to Medicaid. Before the lame duck session, then-Governor-elect Evers signaled that he might limit the effects of the new Medicaid waiver. “Any time we take away people’s ability to access health care and access help that they need, I think it’s a step in the wrong direction,” he said. Now of course, he can do no such thing. 

But Peacock says the waiver debacle is “just the tip of iceberg in terms of the degree of legislative involvement in what used to be executive branch functions.” Agency publications that interpret policy now must be reviewed by the legislature; so are applications for new waivers. “The degree of legislative oversight of agency implementation of the law is just incredible,” Peacock says.

(It wasn’t ever thus. Back in 2011, Wisconsin’s Republican legislature granted Walker’s incoming director of health services director widespread—and unprecedented—authority to alter state Medicaid policy even if those changes conflicted with state regulations.)

Another welfare policy that was codified in the lame duck session, as reported by The Intercept, is that of drug screening and testing of SNAP applicants and beneficiaries, which Walker had attempted to do for years, yet was always rebuffed by the Obama administration. The Trump administration, as far as the public knows, never responded to a Walker letter seeking permission. But the federal government under Trump has considered allowing states to implement drug testing of SNAP recipients, as leaked emails showed last year. 

Evers apparently believes that lawsuits will be filed challenging the legality of the laws that came out of the lame-duck session. “I’m anticipating most of the provisions will be challenged and I’m guessing I will be a defendant rather than a plaintiff,” Evers toldreporters last week, clarifying that he will follow the law, but that he expects that the office of the governor will be sued because many believe the codified provisions are seen by some as unconstitutional (therefore making him the defendant).

This is particularly likely for the provision that requires drug testing for SNAP recipients—the Obama administration rejected Wisconsin’s attempts to institute drug testing in the past for a reason. "The law clearly does not allow [drug testing in SNAP]," Kevin Concannon, the Obama administration’s undersecretary at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2017. “[We] consulted the legal counsels here and the law absolutely does not allow it."

As for the other welfare reforms that the legislature has now mandated, many will be expensive—and they haven’t yet been funded. The spring welfare reform package alone would cost $80 million.

And 2019 is a budget year in Wisconsin.

“[It’s] going to be an intriguing conflict during the budget process,” says Peacock. Wisconsin Republicans, in addition to losing the governorship in the midterms, also lost their veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature. Should Evers veto the funding for last year’s welfare reforms, Republicans lack the votes to override it. 

Besides litigation and the budget battle, Evers may have some other options, including assessing whether Walker’s reforms have actually met their goals. He could, for instance, order an evaluation of the SNAP job training program, where SNAP recipients are placed if they want to keep their benefits, but under which roughly 100,000 people have lost their food stamps. Before the law that expands the job training program to all adults with school-age children is scheduled to go into effect, Evers could “make sure it works for everyone and not just the contractors,” Fitzgerald says.

In November, Wisconsin voters chose a very different path from the one that Walker was forging. So far, the legislature has ignored them.

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