When Work isn’t Enough: Effectively Supporting Wisconsin’s Working Families

Thursday, June 8, 2017 at 8:13 AM by

Wisconsin workers should be able to earn enough to support their families and make ends meet. But many jobs in Wisconsin don’t pay enough to lift workers’ families out of poverty, or provide the benefits that families need, according to a recent report from COWS at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The difficulty that workers have in climbing out of poverty is compounded by the fact that many of the supports that Wisconsin provides to working families are not well-aligned with the realities of low-wage jobs. Rather than fixing these supports, some Wisconsin lawmakers want to make these services even more difficult for Wisconsin workers to access.

Many jobs in Wisconsin simply don’t pay enough to make ends meet. More than 1 in 4 Wisconsin workers hold poverty-wage jobs, defined as jobs in which someone working full-time year-round would still not earn enough to keep a family of four out of poverty. Poverty-level jobs cluster in just a few sectors of the economy: 63% of food service workers in Wisconsin earn poverty wages, 48% of retail workers, and 41% of residential and home health care workers earn poverty wages.

Workers of color are more likely to be paid poverty wages than their white counterparts. One-quarter of white workers hold poverty-wage jobs, compared to 39% of black workers and 49% of Latino workers.

In Wisconsin, Workers of Color are More Likely than White Workers to be Paid Poverty-Level Wages

Weak benefit packages exacerbate the hardship faced by workers: only half of poverty-wage workers receive health insurance from their employer. Another 20 percent of poverty-wage workers rely on BadgerCare (Medicaid), and one-sixth have no health insurance at all. About one-third of low-wage workers in general also have no paid sick leave, according to the report, meaning that the same workers who face the lowest wages in jobs also must face loss of income when they are sick.

Low wages and lack of benefits are just part of the problem. Poverty-wage workers are also hampered by fluctuating work schedules, reliance on part-time work, and transportation barriers. Related challenges include:

  • Just-in-time scheduling that adjusts workers’ schedules every week or two and makes it difficult for workers to find child care or to take a second job.
  • Limited hours for part-time workers that preclude them from earning a consistent, stable wage when they can’t get enough shifts.
  • The use of temporary employment services and subcontracting that lessens the stability of employment and increases employees’ susceptibility to potentially dangerous working conditions.
  • A public transportation system that doesn’t effectively transport workers between urban and suburban areas, and
  • A system that suspends drivers’ licenses for failure to pay small fines. If workers lose their license for failing to pay a ticket, they can’t get to work.

Wisconsin has a range of services and policies that help Wisconsin low-wage workers make ends meet. But those policies aren’t always designed to effectively address real-world challenges. For instance:

  • The Wisconsin Shares Program helps low-income working families pay for the child care they need in order to work. But recently adopted guidelines require families to provide schedules four weeks in advance, to ensure that the family receives the appropriate subsidy amount. Current scheduling practices by employers do not allow families in poverty-wage jobs to make a determination of their schedules so far in advance, so the families cannot receive the subsidies, and
  • Wisconsin lawmakers reduced eligibility for BadgerCare in 2014, and as a result, working parents whose wages are above the federal poverty level are now ineligible.

Rather than fixing these policies, some lawmakers are seeking to further reduce the effectiveness of these programs by making them harder for low-wage workers to use.  According to the report, “policymakers are increasingly adopting more punitive and unrealistic approaches to these programs, in spite of these essential structural barriers for low-wage workers. Punitive approaches and restrictions are becoming more common, but there is little evidence that these approaches will help workers and families thrive.” For example,

  • Wisconsin recently added a requirement that able-bodied childless adults must be employed in order to receive FoodShare benefits (also known as food stamps), or attend job training. Because of the scarcity of appropriate jobs in Milwaukee for FoodShare recipients, only 7 percent of eligible recipients were placed in jobs after job training. The Governor recently proposed expanding this requirement to include able-bodied adults with children, a proposal that could reduce the amount of food assistance that families receive, and
  • The Governor has also proposed a work requirement for able-bodied childless adults participating in BadgerCare, moving affordable health care for the lowest-income residents of the state even further away.

Working at a stable job that pays family-supporting wages is the best way for families to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Workers should be supported for their efforts to work their way out of poverty, rather than punished. Wisconsin can better support working families in many ways, including:

  • Removing limits on the time period that Wisconsin residents who are out of work can receive FoodShare benefits, especially in areas with high unemployment rates.
  • Rolling back the requirement that families provide schedules up to four weeks in advance in order to receive Wisconsin Shares subsidies. It is unrealistic in light of the current work environment.
  • Providing support for workers’ transportation needs, through public transportation programs to work sites and by restructuring the license revocation and suspension programs to ensure that people can drive to work even if they fail to pay small fines.
  • Investing in the technical college system workforce training program, and
  • Raising the minimum wage.

Read the full report: When Work is Not Enough, COWS, May 2017.

Tamarine Cornelius & Joanne Brown

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