Working to put Food on the Table is Dignity, not Slavery

Detractors of Wisconsin’s new FoodShare work requirements claim to support dignified work, then call it slavery

December 10, 2015

By Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate

In criticizing the FoodShare program’s new work requirements, Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force, says that her organization believes that the most dignified way to put food on the table is by earning the money through a job. Just a few paragraphs later, she writes that Wisconsin is shamefully motivating people through the threat of hunger. She later compares work programs to slavery.

Which is it? Is it dignified to work to put food on your table? Or is it akin to slavery?

I love my job, and everyday I consider myself lucky to have this position. But I would not do it for free – or at least, not for 40 hours a week. I am not alone in this. If I didn’t have to pay rent or my many student loans, I would probably spend my time traveling, experiencing new cultures – any number of things. But I don’t. Like many others, I work full-time so that I can get by.

Tussler says that Wisconsin is trying to motivate people with the threat of hunger, but all of human history has already done that. As passionate as I am about writing and reporting on free markets, I’m also passionate about laying on my couch and watching Netflix. Only one of those pays the bills.

FoodShare’s work requirements require able-bodied individuals aged 18 to 49, who don’t have children living with them, to either:

1. Work at least 80 hours per month, OR
2. Participate in a work program such as FoodShare Employment and Training (FSET), Wisconsin Works (W2), or another state-approved program for at least 80 hours per month, OR
3. Work and participate in a work program for a combined 80 hours of work per month.

Individuals who choose not to meet the work requirements are allowed three months of FoodShare benefits in a 36-month period. If they do not meet the requirement, they will not be allowed to receive benefits.

DHS data shows that 4,513 individuals found work with the help of the newly created FoodShare Employment Training (FSET) program, a free program which helps FoodShare recipients build their marketable skills and get jobs. More than 40,000 individuals complied with the requirements, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, which broke the story.

Within three months of the law’s implementation, almost 15,000 individuals dropped off the public assistance program program because they failed to comply with the work requirements.

Mainstream media coverage of the issue has questioned the legitimacy of the work requirements. Articles from the State Journal, Tussler’s piece, and other outlets have essentially raised an eyebrow at Gov. Walker and legislators who support the new requirements. That coverage, however, is short-sighted.

If applicants truly are not willing to participate in training programs or work an average of 20 hours a week – a number that even many high school students achieve long before they enter full-time work – then perhaps they do not really rely on the FoodShare benefits.

The FSET program is still taking off. Month after month, the number of its participants grow. 4,513 people have already been placed into jobs after participating in the program. There are more available jobs than program participants, according to the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). FSET is not the only program, either – the DWD, with its annual budget of well over $300 million, exists with the mission of helping train Wisconsin’s workforce. Over a dozen programs exist under the DWD umbrella with this sole purpose.

Tussler says that the costs of mandatory employment are extreme, at $50 million to run the work requirement program. She fails to consider the almost $861 million Wisconsin has already spent this year on the FoodShare program. We need to make sure that every dollar of that program is spent wisely and is going to those who really need it.

The truly extreme idea here is that putting in 20 hours a week – the same amount that many high schoolers work, not including eight hours of school, plus homework – in order to participate in a state assistance program is somehow slavery. To use that word to describe reforms to a public benefits program is intellectually dishonest, and it crosses the line.

Tussler describes issues with ResCare, a company which provides job training and placement for the FSET program, as evidence of the failure of that program and of FoodShare’s work requirements. If there are true issues with ResCare, especially when it comes to compliance with the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, then the state must deal with them. If job seekers have been asked inappropriate questions about their mental states, then I fully join Tussler in condemning the company.

That doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. If there are issues with ResCare – fix them. But the principle is still there. The most dignified way to get food at the store is with earnings from your own job.

Tussler starts by writing that the Hunger Task Force believes in this principle. She and her organization should stand by that idea and encourage able-bodied childless adults with low food buying power to get out there and work, starting themselves down a pathway to success and off government assistance.