Wisconsin Senate nears final approval for new restrictions on welfare benefits

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MADISON -- A plan to restrict who can get welfare benefits in Wisconsin is up for a final vote in Madison on Tuesday, Feb. 20. Republicans say the changes will move people off the government handout line and into the workforce. But Democrats say the plan is too costly -- both for the state and for the poor.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

The Wisconsin Senate is poised to approve new rules forcing many food stamp recipients to work 30 hours a week -- and for the first time, the requirement would apply to many parents. The Assembly approved the plan last week.

"Our goal is to make sure that people who are on benefits do it for a short amount of time," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Critics say new restrictions will make an already ineffective program worse.

Since April 2015, 25,071 people found work through Wisconsin's food stamp training program, according to state data. The same data show than three times as many, 84,428 people, were kicked off benefits after exhausting their three months of aid.

Bianca Shaw

"I feel like this is an us vs. them, and it's not," said Bianca Shaw, who lives near Sherman Park in Milwaukee.

Shaw, who testified against the proposal before lawmakers this year, said she struggled for years to find a job that paid enough to cover her rent and child care for her young daughter.

Instead of the new restrictions, Shaw said the state needs to expand child care subsidies and train those on benefits for in-demand careers in science and technology.

"I do not feel like I have access to the American dream. Although I know that it is mine to have and I will get there, it is a struggle," Shaw said.

Under the GOP plan, the state will start tracking the jobs people find through Wisconsin's training program -- and the wages they are offered. Contractors who place people in good-paying jobs will receive a bonus.

The package of changes was originally estimated to cost the state $90 million a year.

Wisconsin Assembly

GOP leaders say they have made changes that will cut the cost, but Vos could not say late last week how much the amendments would save.

"We think that will be good for the recipients, but also good for the taxpayers," Vos said.

The Assembly also approved a bill requiring photo IDs on Wisconsin food stamp cards. But unlike the rest of the plan, that bill is not on the Senate's calendar Tuesday, casting some doubt whether it has enough support to pass.