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Authors of sweeping anti-poverty proposal say it can help state’s workforce needs


Authors of sweeping anti-poverty proposal say it can help state’s workforce needs

Sep 27, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Erik Gunn
Authors of sweeping anti-poverty proposal say it can help state’s workforce needs
An omnibus anti-poverty draft bill being circulated for cosponsorship includes provisions relating to housing, transportation and workforce development. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

Democratic lawmakers rolled out a massive draft bill Tuesday aimed at tackling poverty by addressing housing, transportation, and a host of related factors that the backers say keep people on the margins and out of the workforce.

The authors, Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) and Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick), opted for a broad approach in the proposed omnibus legislation, which they’ve named the Wisconsin Opportunity Act, to draw attention to the interconnected nature of an array of seemingly disconnected problems faced by people living in poverty.

Authors of sweeping anti-poverty proposal say it can help state’s workforce needs
State Rep. Lisa Subeck

“It feels like we spend a lot of time nibbling around the edges, we spend a lot of time focusing on — and these are important things — focusing on some of the symptoms,” Subeck said Tuesday, ticking off homelessness, food insecurity and transportation as examples of individual obstacles that people face. 

“Our goal with this bill is to set forth a bigger picture, a more comprehensive approach,” she said. “To really recognize that you can’t address employment and job skills if people don’t have a way to get to work — you have to address transportation. You can’t address affordable housing if people [recovering from addiction] don’t have access to sober living. You can’t tackle any of these things in a vacuum and really make a big enough difference in the big picture.”

The bill covers a wide-ranging territory. It includes:

  • An array of housing-related legislation, including direct grants to help homeless people find permanent housing, rental assistance, other forms of support for housing costs and legal assistance for indigent people facing eviction.
  • Workforce development programs for community action agencies to help the working poor with job and skills training and placement, as well as an expansion of existing subsidized-wage job programs. 
  • Expanded support for children exposed to lead in their homes, more funding for lead abatement programs in homes and additional funding for replacing lead lines that supply water to homes. 
  • Additional mass transit aid as well as grants to support more transportation assistance.
Authors of sweeping anti-poverty proposal say it can help state’s workforce needs
State Sen. Jeff Smith

“This package is about opportunity, particularly for families who are being left behind,” said Smith. He rejects claims that adults who haven’t found work are simply lazy, don’t care about a job and depend on government programs.

“That’s not true,” he said. “And the other part is, they’re not getting the opportunity to be able to raise their families … You can’t just [focus on] one thing and not consider everything else that goes along with opportunity.”

The principal authors pitch the package as a practical response to the state’s continuing workforce challenge as employers across many industries report job openings they’ve been unable to fill.

“Employers across the state are calling on the legislature to address our workforce shortage,” Subeck and Smith state in a memo that went out Tuesday afternoon inviting lawmakers to sign on as cosponsors. “The Wisconsin Opportunity Act directs much needed funding to critical programs that not only alleviate the effects of poverty, but also help connect Wisconsinites who want to work with employers and the resources they need to re-enter the workforce.”

Smith said the bill’s big picture approach is exemplified by its effort to connect housing and transportation to workforce shortages.

Finding a job can be especially hard for someone who has no vehicle or doesn’t live on a bus route, he said — or who lives in one county and there’s no public transportation that crosses county lines to where there might be a job 10 miles away. 

Adequate housing can determine whether someone will be able to keep a job, Subeck said. “When somebody who is working becomes homeless, it often disrupts their work as well.”

She saw the lives of the working poor up close when she worked at a homeless shelter. “In some cases, they were working full-time, sometimes more than 40 hours a week and still couldn’t afford housing,” Subeck said. 

She recalled a nursing home worker she met at the shelter who had no housing and slept in her car with her child. Parking tickets went unpaid because the woman couldn’t afford to pay them and meet her living expenses. Racking up unpaid fines cost the woman her driver’s license, and then her car got towed for parking violations.

“She ended up losing her job as a result,” Subeck said. “That just illustrates how interconnected all of these topics are.”

Both lawmakers acknowledge that the bill faces at best an uphill battle in a politically lopsided Legislature whose GOP members have generally derided support programs.

“If we don’t continue to raise awareness — even if you feel like the current political environment in this building is not going to allow this to move — then we’re not doing our job,” Smith said. 

Subeck said that local anti-poverty Community Action Program agencies have given their support to the proposal, and that those organizations work in districts represented by Republicans, not just Democrats. 

“They have been meeting with various Republicans over the past couple of sessions” as previous iterations of the legislation have been introduced, she observed. “We have found that there has been some interest, at least in parts of it.”

While there might not yet be “bipartisan willingness to take such a comprehensive approach, I do think this is how we make progress,” Subeck added. “And I do think that there are opportunities to bring on board some of my Republican colleagues and to start working toward what we’re trying to do.”