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By D.L. Davis August 2, 2022

Kleefisch off the mark with claim linking worker shortage and medical assistance enrollments

If Your Time is short

  • Kleefisch is right on the number of childless adults on the program.

  • But she is off the mark in suggesting they could be easily removed from the rolls, and that by and large they are not working.

  • In many cases, state officials say, those recipients are working and need the health coverage because they are unable to get it through their jobs.

  • Finally, there are many other reasons for the worker shortage, from baby boomers retiring to a slowing of immigration and more.

In a recent Republican gubernatorial debate on WTMJ-TV, Rebecca Kleefisch put a different spin on unemployment and the state’s workforce. Here is how her staff relayed the comment in a July 24, 2022 tweet, issued even as the debate continued:

"There is absolutely no reason why Wisconsin should be facing a worker shortage to the level we are when there are 123,000 more able-bodied childless adults on BadgerCare since the pandemic. We need to get Wisconsinites off welfare and into work that pays!" 

Kleefisch, a two-term lieutenant governor, was joined in the GOP debate by businessman Tim Michels and state Rep. Tim Ramthun, R-Campbellsport. The primary election is Aug. 9, 2022, with the winner facing Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.

We were interested in whether Kleefisch had her numbers right — but also whether it’s as simple as putting any able-bodied adult on BadgerCare into an available job.

Spoiler alert: It’s much more complicated than that.

A look at the numbers

When asked for backup for the claim, Kleefisch staffer Mattias Gugel pointed PolitiFact Wisconsin to Department of Health Services statistics on Medicaid. 

Those numbers show that in February 2020, just before the pandemic,  total Medicaid childless adult enrollment was 152,046. In June of 2022, enrollment was at 277,939 — an increase of 125,893. 

Gugel said Kleefisch was using May numbers, when the increase would have been 123,311. 

He also argued that the use of the phrase "to the level" meant Kleefisch "doesn't believe this was some cure-all to fix the worker shortage." 

Fair enough.

But that was the thrust of the argument — that those able-bodied people on Medicaid could make a big dent in the worker shortage.

Indeed, Gugel also told us that, in Kleefisch’s view, Evers and President Joe Biden are "refusing to remove individuals from Medicaid who should no longer be eligible. The availability of government benefits is a disincentive to work, therefore a contributing factor to the worker shortage problem."

So, that framing — the way it is being presented to voters — makes a difference in our analysis, and causes us to give more weight to that side of the equation. 

Two faulty premises 

Elizabeth Goodsitt, a Department of Health Services communications specialist, said the claim — and the way Gugel says Kleefisch is framing it — relies on two faulty premises:

"One, the state could simply remove individuals from BadgerCare Plus at any time, and two that working and being on BadgerCare Plus are mutually exclusive. Both are inaccurate."

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On the removal front, Goodsitt said federal law "effectively bars states from changing or terminating Medicaid coverage until after the (COVID) public health emergency ends." At this time, that is not set to expire until Oct. 13, 2022.

On the working front, she said historically more than 45% of those childless adults are employed, adding: "They enroll in BadgerCare Plus because they are underemployed and do not have health insurance available through their jobs."

What’s more, although there is a worker shortage in many areas, Kleefisch in her claim neglects to recognize that employment in Wisconsin has reached historic highs — and unemployment is near record lows.

"The state’s ‘labor force participation rate’ (measuring the share of the working-age population in the labor force) is 66.5%," Laura Dresser, associate director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center on Wisconsin Strategy, told us via email. "That’s higher than it was before the pandemic and substantially higher than the national rate of 62.3%. 

Jennifer Sereno, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s communications director, pointed to similar statistics and noted they "would appear to undermine the assertion that participation in BadgerCare is affecting employment and labor force participation" 

Finally, worker shortages are about more than the Medicaid benefits.

Sachin Shivaram, CEO of Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry in Manitowoc, laid out his perspective in a May 2021 opinion piece that ran in USA Today Network-Wisconsin newspapers.

"Since the start of the pandemic, the labor force in America has shrunk by about 4 million people," he wrote. "This does not include workers on unemployment, because they are technically considered to be in the labor force."

He also pointed to demographic issues: "Our overall population grew by just 7% in the past 10 years while the economy grew by 50%. Add to that, baby boomers are retiring in droves."

There are other factors, too, including slower rates of immigration and the mismatch between skills that employers seek and the skills job seekers have. 

"The pandemic displaced millions of low-skilled workers in economic sectors like hospitality and retail," Shivaram wrote. "But the jobs that are in highest demand now are in sectors like manufacturing and truck driving that generally require specific training."

So, the picture is far, far more complex than Kleefisch suggests. In other words, there are reasons — many of them — behind the worker shortage, ones that go far beyond the number of able-bodied childless adults on BadgerCare. 

Our ruling

Kleefisch claimed, "There is absolutely no reason why Wisconsin should be facing a worker shortage to the level we are when there are 123,000 more able-bodied childless adults on BadgerCare since the pandemic." 

She was on target with the 123,000 figure, but is off the mark when she links the number so strongly to the worker shortage. First, many of those 123,000 may already be working. And they may not be able to step into many of the open jobs without additional training.

What’s more, the claim greatly oversimplifies the economy and the factors helping create the workers shortage, from baby boomers retiring to lower immigration to the mismatch between worker skills and open jobs.

 For a statement that contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Mostly False.


Our Sources

WTMJ Decision 2022 Republican Primary Debate, July 24, 2022

Twitter, Rebecca Kleefisch, July 24, 2022 

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Donald Trump to stump for Tim Michels in Waukesha ahead of Wisconsin's primary election for governor," July 26, 2022

Email, Kleefisch staff Mattias Gugel, July 26 and July 28, 2022

Email, Elizabeth Goodsitt, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, July 27, 2022

Email, Laura Dresser, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center on Wisconsin Strategy, July 29, 2022

Email, Jennifer Sereno, Department of Workforce Development, Aug. 1, 2022

Wisconsin Department of Health Services "2019 novel coronavirus case is confirmed in Wisconsin," Feb. 5, 2020.

Legislative Fiscal Bureau, "Medical assistance & related programs," January 2021

ForwardHealth, 2020-2022

Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter (USA Today Network – Wisconsin) "Opinion: Labor shortage has no simple fix, Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry CEO says," May 26, 2021

Department of Workforce Development "BLS Data: Wisconsin unemployment rate remains at 2.9%; 45,100 total nonfarm jobs added over the Year," July 21, 2022


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Kleefisch off the mark with claim linking worker shortage and medical assistance enrollments

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