By CARA LOMBARDO
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Republican lawmaker proposing to take away food stamps from Wisconsin parents who miss child support payments said Tuesday it would strengthen families, while opponents say they haven’t seen the evidence.
“This bill makes sure that somebody’s standing behind me saying ‘You brought a child into this world, you need to own up to your responsibility of caring for that child,'” Rep. Joe Sanfelippo said at an Assembly Committee on Public Benefit Reform hearing on the bill he authored with Republican Sen. Chris Kapenga.
Under the proposal, parents who refuse to acknowledge paternity or are late on child support payments for more than three months would lose eligibility for FoodShare benefits. FoodShare is a federally funded food stamp program for low-income households. The bill is nearly identical to a provision that was state law until 2007.
Almost 75 percent of child support payments in the state were paid on time last year and almost 70 percent of late payments were later collected, Kapenga said, noting that the bill does not apply to parents who have worked out alternative payment plans with a court.
Democratic committee members pressed for more details on the measure’s effectiveness and cost.
“I want to see evidence that when this requirement was in place, it actually helped collections,” Democratic Rep. Lisa Subeck of Madison said. “It’s a big investment for what may or may not be effective.”
The state Department of Children and Families estimated information technology updates to accommodate the bill would cost $412,500, a figure Sanfelippo said he thinks is too high.
“If this move results in non-custodial parents who are not involved in their child’s life becoming involved in their child’s life, you can’t put a price tag on that,” he added.
Milwaukee County Child Support Services Director Jim Sullivan said collections in the county improved both before and after the 2007 law change, which occurred when he was a Democratic state senator. Sullivan said removing parents’ benefits would make it harder for them to pay child support payments and less likely to have food in the home when their children visit. He noted that Wisconsin is currently the second best state in child support collections.
More than 20 Republican lawmakers are co-sponsoring the measure and GOP Gov. Scott Walker included a similar proposal in his budget. It also has the support of Wisconsin Family Action, an anti-abortion organization that promotes marriage between one man and one woman.
Julaine Appling, the group’s president said that the bill, particularly the paternity acknowledgment requirement, addresses the state’s “epidemic of fatherlessness” by triggering action from uninvolved parents.
“When we keep giving them benefits and letting them off the hook,” Appling said, “we really do reinforce the cycle of poverty.”
Matt Striensra, a lobbyist for the Hunger Task Force, which runs a food bank and other programs to combat hunger, said even well-intentioned parents who work multiple jobs can fall behind.
“A late child support payment for three months doesn’t always mean that the parent doesn’t love or spend time with their child,” he said.
Hunger Task Force, the National Association of Social Workers and the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Family Law and Public Interest Law sections are among the groups opposing the measure.