(The Center Square) – A new report suggests Wisconsin’s program to help disabled workers in the state find permanent, self-sustaining jobs is missing the mark. 

The Badger Institute released its report into the Wisconsin Works, or W-2, program late last month. The study notes while enrollment in the program is down, it is not necessarily because program managers are helping low-income, disabled workers find permanent jobs. 

“The findings suggest that many of these W-2 Transition parents are not currently gaining employment and are instead leaving W-2 Transition because of program time limits or disability assistance receipt,” author Angela Rachidi wrote. “This trend does not bode well for Wisconsin’s low-income parents with disabilities and health limitations, nor for their children. Employment is the surest path out of poverty, and people with disabilities and health limitations have the ability and desire to work.”

Rachidi’s research says most people leave W-2 in one of two ways. They either time-out, hitting the federal government’s 60-month cap, or they are moved to Social Security disability. 

Rachidi noted the point of W-2 was to find jobs for people who can work, but may not be able to hold down a job without some assistance. By moving people out of W-2 without a job, she wrote, those workers are not getting the help they need. 

“A more concerning trend is that an increasing share of W-2 Transition placements appear to be leaving the program due to time limits, suggesting that W-2 may not be successful in connecting many participants to sustainable employment opportunities,” Rachidi wrote. “[Wisconsin] DCF data shows that the number of participants who reached the time limit and exited the W-2 Transition program has increased in recent years.”

As for the move to SSI, Rachidi says that makes sure disabled workers have money coming in, but it misses the mark on the broader picture. 

“If people are truly incapable of working, SSI might be a better program for them than W-2,” Rachidi stated. “On the other hand, medical interventions and workplace accommodations can address the employment disruptions caused by many health conditions and help W-2 participants find a path out of poverty through employment. Research shows that SSI can lower overall employment rates by encouraging otherwise employable people to become dependent on government assistance. People who transition from W-2 to SSI still receive cash assistance, but they lack the financial and non-financial benefits of employment.”

And Rachidi said there are important questions to be answered about whether more disability payments can actually lift low-income, disabled workers out of poverty. 

The report also notes a split between the state’s Department of Children and Families, which handles benefits for W-2 workers, and the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which trains people in Wisconsin to find jobs. 

“The W-2 program mandates [workers] to participate in services [through DCF], while disabled job seekers voluntarily participate in vocational rehabilitation services. These differences can create tension and a cultural divide between the two agencies that translates to the participating families,” Rachidi wrote. “The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is better equipped to serve job seekers with disabilities and health issues than the Department of Children and Families. [Because] the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation built its entire service model around preparing people with disabilities for employment and helping them be successful.”

The Badger Institute report offers some suggestions to improve the W-2 program. Rachidi and her team recommend Wisconsin focus on helping people in the program learn job skills, as opposed to looking for work or simply looking for benefits. 

Rachidi also recommends establishing a new four-year timeline for all W-2 participants, and finding a way to track people once they leave the program to make sure they are getting the help and jobs they need. 

“Low-income parents with disabilities and their children will be far better off if government programs help them find sustainable and stable opportunities for employment rather than encourage dependence,” Rachidi wrote.

Benjamin Yount reports on Illinois and Wisconsin statewide issues for The Center Square. Reposted with permission.