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Gov. Walker Embraces 'Workfare' and Solves Two Problems

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has a plan that could address two growing public policy challenges:  

  1. How to ensure welfare programs are only temporary (i.e., not permanent) safety nets for those who are able to work; and 

  2. How to address a worker shortage that often comes with a strong and growing economy. 

The first problem was effectively addressed in the 1996 welfare reform law that required recipients to work or attend job training if they wanted to receive cash assistance. Wisconsin was at the forefront of that movement

However, years of bureaucratic clawbacks and years of Obama administration obstructionism—especially during the last recession—have watered down those provisions. Plus, the work requirement, “workfare,” never applied to a wide range of welfare programs. 

Walker’s plan requires able-bodied people with school-age children to work 30 hours a week to receive food stamps. That’s not meant to punish welfare recipients, as workfare opponent often assert.  

It’s meant to discourage people who can work from applying for welfare or remaining in the system so that social workers have more time and resources to focus on those who do need help. 

The one caution we would add is that the demand for job training is often used as a way to avoid actually going to work. The best job training is on-the-job training. Most of the lower-skilled jobs don’t take much, if any, off-site training.  

So Walker’s plan tackles the problem of how to separate those who really need help from those who don’t. 

But it also addresses the growing worker shortage. Wisconsin has a historically low 3 percent unemployment rate; employers are struggling to find workers. 

The Badger State’s jobs listing website boasts 100,000 unfilled jobs. Indeed, the Labor Department’s just-released “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey” says the number of job openings in the U.S. has reached a record high—6.3 million. 

Employers need workers; economies cannot grow without them. 

Immigration reform that would expand the guest worker programs could help address that shortage, but such legislation seems unlikely. So Walker is turning to Americans who are on the welfare rolls to solve the state’s labor shortage.  

If the governor is successful in achieving both of his goals—i.e., transitioning welfare recipients into workers who can support themselves and finding a fresh supply of workers for the booming economy—Wisconsin will once again be at the forefront of showing states and Congress the way forward.