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Sunday, June 16, 2024
In a special session called by Gov. Scott Walker, the state Assembly passed a series of reforms to the state’s welfare system, adding work requirements, drug testing, and asset value limitations to various social programs.

In a special session called by Gov. Scott Walker, the state Assembly passed a series of reforms to the state’s welfare system, adding work requirements, drug testing, and asset value limitations to various social programs.

‘The deserving poor:’ Walker’s welfare reform plans highlight perceptions of poverty

“Public assistance should be more like a trampoline and less like a hammock,” Gov. Scott Walker announced to roaring applause at his State of the State address, introducing a package of new reforms to the welfare system.

These reforms would add a series of stricter requirements for Wisconsinites to qualify for welfare and public support, with the goal of easing people off of government dependency and into the mainstream economy.

But these policies have more than administrative importance, as they also suggest a unique understanding of what poverty is like, and what sorts of values are assigned to different people grappling with it.

To Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who testified in support of the reform proposals, any good welfare system is one that “promotes accountability, encourages personal responsibility, prevents fraud and abuse,” and “opens the doors of opportunity for people who can work.”

Debates within social policy often wrestle with questions of who is considered worthy of help.

“Deservingness has historically been tied to ability and willingness to work,” said Marcy Carlson, a professor in the UW-Madison Department of Sociology and researcher at the Institute for Research on Poverty. “Americans, in terms of their values, really value hard work, so we’ve historically thought that people who choose not to work are not deserving of our assistance.”

Walker’s reforms seem to be very much in touch with this line of classical American thought, as one proposal would require at least 30 hours of work per week from those without children and 20 hours from parents to remain eligible for food stamps.

Similar efforts have been taken up in state governments around the country — to no further extent than in Kansas, where former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature instituted aggressive work eligibility requirements to the state’s welfare system.

Rather than encourage employment for those in poverty, a new report found that over five years, the reforms forced more than 7,000 families off of cash assistance programs. A year after leaving the program, two-thirds had either no earnings or earnings below 50 percent of the poverty line.

Policies designed to address poverty often reflect certain understandings of what poverty is like, and when they fail, some suggest adjusting not only the law, but the idea behind it.

“I don’t think anyone would choose the very meager level of benefits that we have,” Carlson said. “But some people that are forced to rely on that, and so, it seems to me, to assume that’s a choice and that they don’t want to work is inconsistent with the evidence we have.”

As a part of an effort to identify and treat addiction, Walker also announced an intention to “ensure that everyone getting public assistance can pass a drug test,” calling for mandatory drug screenings to qualify for public housing, food stamps and Medicaid.

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Similar initiatives have found little success in other states, creating substantial administrative costs without finding meaningful drug use among welfare recipients.

What reforms like these indicate, critics say, is a pervasive stigma against those living in poverty, a suspicion of people that require public support.

“It’s taking receipt of benefits and making it seem like a moral problem, that these are drug abusers who aren’t doing the right thing,” Carlson said. “I feel like if that’s not the case, then why aren’t all state employees subject to drug testing, what is it about the need for government assistance that makes you suspicious?”

This too contributes to a clearer picture of how many Americans view those on welfare: with deep suspicion, as narratives of the lavish lifestyles of “welfare queens” and lobster-eating food stamp recipients continue to flood conversations on the subject.

Many fear that expansive social programs could breed laziness and permanent dependency, as Walker suggested in likening traditional welfare to a “hammock,” contributing to the notion of public benefits as a potentially desirable, or even luxurious state of living.

“Most poverty is pretty dynamic. There aren’t really a lot of people who are just poor their entire lives, it’s more that stuff just happens,” Carlson said. “People lose a job, people get sick, people have natural disasters in their community and they’re not able to support themselves. To me, the idea of welfare as a ‘hammock’ just doesn’t go along with the notion of what the evidence shows, of who’s poor and why they become poor.”

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