Food is a Human Right: Cutting FoodShare benefits simply punishes people for being poor

Alison Ahlgrim, News Editor

If access to adequate food is a human right recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, why does Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker think it’s OK to restrict and deny this most basic of human rights and needs?

During his time as governor, Walker has already created and passed bills that require childless FoodShare (food stamp) recipients to work 80 hours per month to maintain their benefits, as well as a bill that allows FoodShare recipients to be randomly drug tested. While the drug testing is still making its way through the courts, Walker recently proposed a new change that will extend the work requirement to adults with children.

The existing work requirement helped 21,000 people secure jobs in the past two years, but also caused 64,000 people to lose their benefits, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). While it is important that 21,000 people became gainfully employed, it’s unconscionable that three times that many people not only did not find gainful employment, but also had their FoodShare benefits stripped from them. According to DHS, those who did find employment make an average of $12 per hour, meaning they still qualify for FoodShare and did not actually escape poverty.

To make matters worse, Walker constantly touts his FoodShare Employment Training (FSET) program as a viable option for those who are unable to find work. The problem is, people enrolled in this program are not paid for their work. Their only “payment” is not losing their FoodShare benefits.

Let me re-iterate this point – people in the FSET program are not paid for their training hours or work placements. They are essentially indentured servants who perform demeaning tasks for free in order to keep their FoodShare.

FSET workers are often placed in menial roles answering phones, making copies, or doing other rote tasks that do not provide them with engaging work or long-term, transferrable skills. I have personally supervised workers through FSET placements and found it hard to mentor or connect with them because they only worked a few hours each week. In fact, FSET participants I supervised explicitly told me that the program made them feel worthless and demoralized.

Given what he calls the “great success” of the FSET program, Walker’s 2017-19 budget includes a proposal to add adults with children to the work requirement for maintaining FoodShare. According to the Wisconsin DHS, there are about 100,000 FoodShare recipients with school-age children. It is unknown how many of these adults already work 80 hours per month, but 7,300 recipients with children report no income at all.

Walker is quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal as saying, “There will be some critics out there . . . who will say somehow this is an attack on the poor. I couldn’t disagree any more. If you love your neighbor . . . the best way to help your neighbor is to help them getback up on their feet again and control their own destiny.”

Yet, study after study shows that the best way to help “your neighbor” get out of poverty is to put money in their pocket. Not only does this help that person afford food, pay bills, and experience a sense of stability, but, according to Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin, $5 in FoodShare benefits generates $9 of local economic activity.

Furthermore, the World Food Programme notes that, “To realize the full potential of our globalized economy, national governments must expand social protection schemes for the most vulnerable. Providing this opportunity for equitable economic growth will raise the purchasing power of the poorest 2 billion people which in turn will create incremental demand, generating new jobs and jump-starting local economies.”

So, if providing money for people to purchase food helps people and their kids stay healthy, strong, and stable, while also generating local economic activity, why would you cut this benefit if not simply to punish people for being poor?

Time and time again, Governor Walker has shown a complete lack of understanding and disregard for the reality of being poor in Wisconsin. Instead of providing living-wage jobs, resource assistance, or pathways out of poverty, Walker has cut people off at the knees by increasing barriers to receiving benefits, cutting funding for prevention and case management, and debasing and embarrassing those in poverty, not to mention cutting other vital services such as education, health care, and public transportation.

Given the hurdles Walker has constantly thrown in the path of those trying to succeed, it is no wonder that many of them, such as the 64,000 who lost their FoodShare for failing to meet the work requirement, have simply given up trying.

Creating new barriers in an already failed system will only make things worse.