Strengthening Communities and our Economy by Removing Barriers to Work

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Wisconsin communities and our economy will be much stronger when every person in the state has access to opportunity, but many Wisconsinites face barriers to work that are holding them back and hurting our state. This is especially true for communities of color in Wisconsin, who face structural barriers to economic success due to hundreds of years of explicit and implicit institutional racism. These barriers—such as not having access to quality affordable child care, reliable and affordable transportation, and affordable health care—are suppressing Wisconsin’s growth and exacerbating the severe economic and racial disparities in our state.

Removing obstacles to employment is a goal that enjoys broad public support, as well as support from the business community. With that in mind, and because legislators of both parties agree that Wisconsin has an acute workforce shortage, the removal of barriers to work is a policy area where Governor Evers and state legislators should be able to find common ground.

At times in the past, the workforce shortage has been used as a rationale for attacking various public assistance programs. That’s a counterproductive strategy for improving Wisconsin’s economy because public assistance programs like child care subsidies and BadgerCare are critical supports for workers and people seeking work. Rather than chipping away at those programs, the far more effective strategy for expanding the Wisconsin workforce and strengthening Wisconsin is to remove impediments to work.

The Wisconsin Budget Project and Kids Forward are working with a broad array of other groups on an agenda that bolsters work and tackles the real work impediments in our state. Some of the key policy changes needed to achieve those goals include the following:

Expand BadgerCare Eligibility

People cannot participate in the workforce if they are sick, and they can’t be expected to stay in the workforce if the only way for them to get affordable health care is to drop their income below the federal poverty level (which is the income limit for adults in BadgerCare). Expanding BadgerCare eligibility to 138% of the poverty level would significantly improve access to health care and relieve economic hardship for an estimated 76,000 adults. It would increase workforce participation and keep workers healthier.

Increase Transit Funding

Public transportation serves at least three functions: it helps those who don’t drive get to where they need to go, it can be a part of a strategy to reduce overall CO2 emissions, and it can help to reduce racial disparities in employment by providing increased mobility and job opportunities beyond one’s neighborhood. Yet since it was reduced in 2012, state funding for mass transit has remained below 2009 levels, and local taxpayers are bearing an increasing proportion of the cost for diminishing service levels. Increasing state support for public transportation will mean more bus routes, more job access, and more support for disability transit.

Ease License Suspensions for Failing to Pay Fines and Forfeitures

Being able to drive a car can be the determining factor in finding a job or being unemployed. Many potential workers have lost their licenses for failing to pay fines or forfeitures, often for offenses unrelated to driving. Our state needs to minimize that practice by limiting license suspensions to offenses related to dangerous driving. In addition, judges should be authorized to impose other sanctions for failure to pay fines and forfeitures, such as requiring community service, and they should be able to issue occupational permits that restrict driving privileges but allow people to drive to and from a job.

Authorize Driver Licenses for Undocumented Workers

Immigrants are an important part of the Wisconsin workforce, but state law makes it difficult for them to get to jobs because undocumented immigrants are ineligible for state driver licenses. Allowing all immigrants to obtain licenses would make Wisconsin highways safer, result in insurance savings for a broad pool of drivers, and help businesses connect with workers who have skill sets that match employer needs.

Increase Wisconsin Shares Reimbursement Rates

The state budget bill should restore funding that has been cut from the Wisconsin Shares child care subsidy program and allow reimbursement rates to catch up to marketplace rates, because many parents are now unable to find quality child care providers who participate in the subsidy program. The rates have been frozen for most of the last 11 years, and participation in the subsidy program is down sharply across the state, especially in rural counties. The shortage of child care providers has forced many parents to exit the workforce and has forced others to put their children in substandard care.

Ensure Working Families Can Succeed

One of the substantial barriers to work is that too many jobs simply don’t pay enough to enable workers to have safe housing, reliable vehicles to get to those jobs, and consistent access to the health care needed to be productive workers. In another issue guide we outline a number of policy measures, such as increasing the minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which lawmakers should enact to lift working Wisconsinites out of poverty.