Wisconsin just made it way harder to get food stamps

Drug testing, work requirements, healthy food: Some of the new rules are legal. Some require a waiver. And in one case, Governor Scott Walker seems to be flouting federal law entirely.

The Wisconsin State Senate on Tuesday passed nine welfare reform bills along party lines—a package that also passed in the Assembly last week as part of Republican Governor Scott Walker’s special session on welfare reform. It’s a gambit critics have dismissed as an effort to shore up support from Walker’s base in a tough reelection year. But politics or no, the new policies are poised to make big changes to the state’s administration of food benefits by, in part, limiting participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps).

First, the legislation would tie SNAP eligibility to stricter work requirements, raising the amount of time unemployed people are required to attend worker training from 20 hours a week to 30. Additionally, Wisconsin seeks to add a new category of adults to the list of people who must prove they’re working (or spending 30 hours a week trying to find work) before they receive nutritional assistance: parents of children ages 6 to 18. That addition would significantly expand the proportion of adults who must meet the 30-hour work requirement—recent data show that working-age adults make up 44.1 percent of the SNAP program. But imposing strict work requirements doesn’t necessarily lead to higher levels of employment and more income for families. So far, under Walker’s existing welfare-to-work program—which, incidentally, is looser than the one just passed—three people have lost their benefits for every one person who actually gets a job, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Also last week, the state Assembly approved a measure that would launch a five-year, $12 million pilot program requiring SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase “healthy” food. Information on the pilot is limited, but it echoes similar efforts made in other states to ban junk food purchases from the SNAP program. The measure has yet to be passed by the Senate. 

Does Wisconsin really have the authority to make all these changes? It’s complicated.

All told, this new set of rules represents one of the strictest SNAP eligibility policies in the country. It’s likely to significantly reduce program enrollment, though its eventual effects on overall employment are still unknown. Walker has sold the reforms as an effort to turn welfare into a “trampoline, not a hammock.” But these new policies expand eligibility restrictions far beyond what the federal government has approved. Does Wisconsin actually have the authority to make all these changes? 

It’s complicated.

SNAP is a federal program—meaning it’s paid for with federal money—and the federal government is supposed to call the shots on its administration. State governments really aren’t supposed to impose any limits on food benefits without explicit permission from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

But in the last two decades, the federal government has ceded a lot of administrative control to states. For the most part, local governments have responded to that new freedom by making it easier for people to sign up for benefits. I wrote last week about how all 50 states have made progress on a USDA-generated policy index that measures barriers to SNAP usage.

That doesn’t mean states haven’t tried implementing policies that make it harder for people to sign up for benefits. California, for instance, fingerprinted applicants until 2011; the federal government complained at the time that the practice discouraged participation.

In the last two decades, the federal government has ceded a lot of administrative control over SNAP to the states

When states want to make substantial changes to the way they run the SNAP program, they typically must submit waiver requests to USDA explaining what they’d like to change and why. The USDA under President Obama received several such requests from states asking permission to do things like ban purchases of junk food using SNAP benefits, but it rejected them—more on that later.

The Trump administration has indicated that it may handle things a little differently. Back in December, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service released a letter that said the department will give states more power in determining welfare eligibility. The letter outlined no specific changes, but the timing seemed like a wink at Wisconsin: It was released days after Walker announced his plan to drug test SNAP applicants in spite of not having received a response to his request to do so. It’s important to note, however, that this evident hat-tip to state control hasn’t uniformly meant “do what you like with SNAP”: a few weeks later, the department rejected Maine Governor Paul LePage’s request to ban junk food from the state’s SNAP program, just as it had under Obama.

Some of Wisconsin’s new rules are totally legal. Some will require a waiver. And in one case, Walker seems to be flouting the waiver process entirely. But if he’s assuming it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, he may be putting the food benefits of his entire constituency at risk.

Work requirements

There are two big changes to work requirements in these bills, both of which I mentioned above. One raises the amount of time able-bodied adults without dependents (or ABAWDs—read more on that weighty acronym here) have to spend looking for work from 20 to 30 hours a week. The other adds parents of children ages 6 to 18 to the category of people who have to work in order to receive their benefits.

Imposing the 30-hour requirement is totally legal without receiving any extra permission from the federal government. It simply raises the current 20-hour requirement to the maximum number of hours allowed under federal rules. 

Under Walker’s existing welfare-to-work program—which is looser than the one just passed—three people lose their benefits for every one person who actually gets a job.
The other new rule—that parents must join the FoodShare Employment Training program or prove employment in order to continue receiving benefits—will require permission from the federal government by way of a waiver request sent to USDA. (There’s no evidence that Walker’s welfare-to-work program is actually lifting people out of poverty. Of the 70,000 people who have enrolled in the FoodShare Employment Training program, just 25,000 have found work. Wisconsin Public Radio reports thousands of people have lost their benefits for failing to meet the 20-hour requirement.)  

Whether or not that waiver will be granted is anyone’s guess. President Trump’s budget indicated that the White House does support stricter work requirements for SNAP users. But even if the White House decides to allow Walker some leeway in defining state-level requirements, the policy may not pass muster in court.

Healthy food

Back to that five-year, $12 million pilot program that, if passed, would restrict SNAP recipients from using their benefits to purchase junk food. It’s another change that would require approval from the federal government.

Politicians have been trying to limit what people can buy using SNAP dollars since the food stamps program was first rolled out in the mid-twentieth century. That prospect has always been politically fraught—the situation breeds strange bedfellows, and the political power tends to pool on the side of Coca-Cola. Here’s an explainer I wrote last year on whose party advocates for what in that never-ending debate. Still, state governments have been requesting waivers to ban junk food for years. The Obama administration rejected them all, and the Trump administration so far has followed suit.

The new policies are poised to make big changes in the state’s administration of food benefits.
There’s no reason to believe USDA will change its tune and allow Wisconsin the shake-up it denied Maine. And Walker doesn’t seem to be trying sneaky end runs here—Assembly Bill 530 includes language about asking for a waiver from the federal government.

Even if USDA changes its mind about letting states ban junk food, Wisconsin’s junk food ban is not likely to fare well once food industry lobbyists get their hands on it. One case in point was that, on February 15, the bill was approved with a single amendment: Never, under any circumstances, can the Wisconsin government limit the use of SNAP dollars to buy dairy products. That means even if the state succeeds in defining “healthy,” it can’t consider banning ice cream at the same time it regulates Hostess cakes.

Drug testing

Walker’s ongoing quest to drug test SNAP recipients has made national headlines more than once.

We saw this play out in 2015 when he sued USDA for permission to implement drug screenings. At the time, according to court documents, his administration had received an email from agency officials warning that the federal government would not allow such a policy to go into effect.

But a federal judge threw out Walker’s lawsuit because his administration never actually filed a waiver request with USDA, meaning he hadn’t exhausted administrative remedies before taking the issue to court. The judge decided Walker’s claim—that public comments from then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack were proof that his request had been denied—didn’t hold water.

In December 2016, Walker wrote a letter to President-elect Donald Trump asking for explicit permission to drug-test SNAP recipients in Wisconsin. The president still hasn’t responded.

Assuming Walker had submitted a formal waiver along with his letter, I asked USDA for a copy of the documentation. The agency told me that Walker never submitted one—not during the Obama administration, and not during the Trump administration.

If Wisconsin gets away with its new permission-be-damned approach to drug testing, other states may follow suit.
I reached out to Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services about this. Its response: “We did not submit a formal waiver request, as we believe it is within our authority to implement drug screening for participants in the FoodShare Employment and Training Program. We will include the drug screening in the comprehensive State Plan that we submit to FNS, but there is not a separate approval process.”

This appears to be a tactical shift: Remember, Walker is the same guy who sued USDA for explicit permission and followed that with a letter requesting permission to implement drug screening directly from President Trump.

But he never officially filed the waiver.

It remains to be seen whether or not the vague December letter from USDA—the one that said the agency will grant states more leeway in administering the SNAP program—meant that drug testing is a-okay with the federal government now. But it would seem that’s how Walker read it. Representatives from USDA did not immediately respond to request for comment.

If Wisconsin gets away with its new permission-be-damned approach to drug testing, other states may follow suit. Just last week, the Mason City Globe Gazette reported that Republicans in the Iowa Senate are working on a bill that would implement a similar policy in their state.

Drug testing or no, it’s about to get way harder for unemployed people to get and keep their benefits in Wisconsin. And on Wednesday morning, The Hill suggested Walker’s new rules may provide a roadmap for the Republican party to push similar changes nationwide. A quarter century ago, the story points out, it was Wisconsin’s policies that spurred Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reform and a sharp drop in enrollment numbers. Right now, all signs point to at least that little bit of history repeating itself. 

Update 2/23/2018: This story has been updated to clarify that the $12 million pilot program to limit SNAP usage to healthy foods has not yet reached a vote in the Senate. 

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.