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Wisconsin Budget Compounds the Economic Challenges for Low-Wage Workers

The underside of the Wisconsin Capitol Dome

How Wisconsin’s budget cuts hurt workers.

Workers in Wisconsin and across the U.S. must still cope with a relatively weak labor market.  That is especially challenging for low-wage workers who are struggling with the declining value of the minimum wage, reductions in employer benefits like health care, and growing inequality. Those challenges are exacerbated in Wisconsin by budget decisions made by state lawmakers.

A new Wisconsin Budget Project issue brief examines how the how state budget choices are affecting low-wage workers in Wisconsin.  It focuses primarily on the effects of the new budget bill, but also examines a few instances of how that bill continues or compounds the challenges for low-wage workers caused by the 2011-13 budget.

Some of the major effects include the following policy choices relating to health insurance, child care, taxes and unemployment insurance:

Making health insurance and care much more expensive for many parents now in BadgerCare

The 2013-15 budget bill cuts in half the income eligibility ceiling for adults participating in BadgerCare – reducing that cap from 200% of the federal poverty level to just 100%.  That change is expected to cause nearly 90,000 low-income parents and about 5,000 childless adults to lose their BadgerCare coverage, beginning in 2014.  The good news is that Wisconsin is extending coverage to about 80,000 childless adults below the poverty level, but the decision to cap eligibility at that level and turn down enhanced federal funding from the health care reform law means that a single individual with a minimum wage job is ineligible for BadgerCare if he or she is working 30 or more hours per week.

The issue brief analyzes the effect of the budget for a single mother who has two children and an income of $11 per hour (and currently has now BadgerCare premiums and minimal copays).  Beginning in January, when she loses her BadgerCare coverage, she will have to buy insurance through the new Marketplace and will have to pay premiums of about $460 per year and will have significant co-pays and deductibles, which could be as much as $2,250 per year.

Charging premiums for parents in Transitional Medicaid

The state is now seeking a federal waiver that would not only restrict eligibility for BadgerCare, as described above, but would also change another form of Medicaid, known as Transitional Medical Assistance (TMA) by initiating premiums for parents between 100% and 133% of the federal poverty level. If that waiver is approved, parents who climb above the poverty level would struggle to be able to regularly pay the premiums and many are likely to lose their insurance coverage.

Additional cuts in child care subsidies – adversely affecting accessibility and affordability of care

The budget cuts an additional $31 million over the next two years from the Wisconsin Shares child care subsidy program for low-income working families (on top of large cuts in prior years).  Although that cut reflects the estimated cost of maintaining the status quo, it is likely to adversely affect many low-wage workers by causing more child care providers to drop out of the subsidy program and by indirectly increasing co-pays for parents participating in Wisconsin Shares.

Continuing last session’s tax increases for low-income households                                                         

After the 2011-13 budget increased taxes for many taxpayers – by cutting the EITC and repealing the annual inflationary adjustments in the Homestead Tax Credit – lawmakers failed to use any of the $651 million of tax relief in the new budget to reverse those tax increases or to provide any benefit to the lowest income fourth of income tax filers.  The combined effect of the last two biennial budgets is that the EITC is now worth $121 less for a single mom with two kids who makes $11 per hour ($23,000 per year).

Tightening eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits for jobless workers

The bill makes a number of changes in the rules relating to unemployment insurance (UI), including an increase in the work search requirement and other changes affecting eligibility, such as making it easier for employers to dismiss workers without having to pay them UI benefits.  Those changes come on top of the one-week waiting period for eligibility, which was imposed by the previous budget bill.

As the 2013-14 legislative session continues, state lawmakers should strive to help rather than hurt the low-wage workers who are already struggling with major economic challenges.

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Photo by cimexus released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.

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WI Budget Project

WI Budget Project