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Ballot measure is more about playing politics than seeking solutions

The welfare ballot question is a referendum in search of a problem.

Wisconsin voters are being asked to weigh in on a problem that doesn’t exist.

In addition to the local municipality and school board races in the upcoming spring election on April 4, voters will be asked to weigh in on a non-binding statewide referendum asking if welfare recipients should be required to look for employment to receive benefits.

On the face of it, this seems like a common sense thing to support. Just as the saying goes, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” So, too people should be willing to work if they want to receive support.

In fact, this was such a common sense thing to support in Wisconsin, that it was a key component of Gov. Tommy Thompson’s Wisconsin Works welfare overhaul that was signed into law in 1996.

The Wisconsin Historical Society describes the program as “a pioneering piece of welfare legislation that became a national model for welfare reform. Signed into law in 1996 by Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, W-2 replaced Wisconsin’s benefits-based system with one that required individuals to find work while providing money for both school and child care.”

This begs the question of why, 27 years later, Wisconsin voters are being asked to weigh in on a statewide referendum asking if we still think it is a good idea?

The referendum is a blatant political stunt targeting those who have the belief that there are vast numbers of lazy people sponging off the state’s welfare system rather than seeking gainful employment.

Proponents of the Republican-backed referendum say the question is necessary to address worker shortages across the state.

There is no doubt that Wisconsin is seeing a labor shortage, especially among traditionally low-paying jobs in the service sector. However, the factors aggravating that problem have little to do with welfare reform, and much more to do with people being able to earn a living wage working one factory job rather than stringing together multiple minimum-wage service sector part-time jobs. Compounding this is the ticking demographic time-bomb, especially in rural areas of the state, where there are simply not enough young people entering the workforce to replace older workers.

Wisconsin has already required people who get public support to be employed or seeking employment. A new statewide referendum has the sole purpose of agitating a group of voters to get them to come out to the polling places on election day.

The state’s time and energy would be better spent toward addressing real issues that keep the working poor from climbing out of poverty. Things such as finally accepting the federal Medicaid expansion would allow people access to health benefits while working at lower-wage jobs, or allow them to take the raise or promotion without losing all benefits. Under the current cut-offs, there are arbitrary income levels at which support payments for things like childcare cut off. This effectively greases the rungs and causes those attempting to climb out of poverty to fail.

Rather than using the tired bugaboo of welfare free riders to rile up apathetic voters, Wisconsin leaders should instead be focusing efforts on how to allow all those in the state to have jobs which ensure a quality of life for themselves and their families.