Badger Institute visiting fellow’s research shows need for work requirements, time limits
The Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday voted to ask voters in this spring’s elections whether able-bodied childless adults should have to seek work in order to go on receiving taxpayer-funded benefits, an idea the Badger Institute long has championed.
The proposal from Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and passed by the state Senate on Tuesday, will have no direct effect on state law, but it would gauge public interest in measures of the kind the Legislature passed and saw vetoed in the last legislative session — ideas advocated by Badger Institute visiting fellow Angela Rachidi, a nationally recognized authority on employment and economic mobility.
The referendum, which does not require the governor’s signature, will ask voters, “Shall able-bodied childless adults be required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits?” The clear answer from Rachidi’s research is, “Yes.”
“The design of current safety net programs can discourage the very things that help families escape poverty permanently on their own, such as employment and marriage,” Rachidi wrote in “Mandate for Madison,” the Badger Institute’s recent manual of policy ideas for a better state. Among Wisconsinites of working age who are employed full-time, only 2.2% are poor, while of those who don’t work, 29.8% are poor.
Encouraging employment was a key part of Wisconsin’s successful welfare reform in the 1990s, Rachidi wrote. Changes since then to blunt or waive such requirements, including emergency measures from the pandemic that remain in place even as unemployment has plummeted, “can hold Wisconsin’s low-income families back and prevent them from meeting their full potential.”
Rachidi proposed an overhaul of the more than $12 billion that Wisconsinites receive in anti-poverty money from state and federal taxpayers, one that uses work requirements, time limits and an end to “benefits cliffs” so that Wisconsin “moves away from simply accommodating poverty and toward supporting the principles that will lead to family prosperity — more work, less government dependence and more marriage.”
The “Mandate for Madison” wasn’t the first such exhortation from the Middleton-based Rachidi, who also is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Last February, Rachidi provided testimony to Wisconsin lawmakers in favor of a bill to reinstate work requirements for able-bodied childless adults receiving SNAP (also called FoodShare) benefits. That group remained far more numerous than before the pandemic, when requirements were waived, “even though the unemployment rate has returned to pre-pandemic levels,” she testified.
Rachidi detailed that disconnect — continued use of benefits by able-bodied childless adults even as Wisconsin employers cried out for help — in an October 2021 policy brief for the Badger Institute. She noted that this is not just a matter of frugality with taxpayer money and encouraging family independence: “For Wisconsin’s economy to regain its footing fully,” she wrote, “people must be available and willing to work,” something that requires state leaders to “reinforce and reinstate work requirements.”
Even before the pandemic’s disruptions, Rachidi had been warning that the Evers administration reversed Wisconsin’s pro-work approach, waiving work requirements. In January 2020’s “Wisconsin’s Missing Rung,” she documented the ways in which the state had slid backward and proposed specific changes to strengthen the safety net while incentivizing work rather than discouraging it.
“When people who are capable of working find sustained employment, they largely avoid poverty for themselves and their families,” she wrote. States have a particular interest in encouraging prime-age people to work because “the higher the employment rates, the lower likelihood that residents are in poverty. And lower poverty makes it easier for policymakers and communities to combat the negative consequences of poverty among their residents, including neighborhood decay, crime and poor-quality schools.”
Rachidi’s work for the Badger Institute, and that of many other scholars on a broad range of issues, can be found here.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.