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Welfare Reform: The Clues Are in Wisconsin

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, September 23, 1997; Page A17


MADISON, Wis.—In baseball, when your team is headed for oblivion, the magic words are: "Wait 'til next year." In the debate over what happens now that welfare has been abolished, the magic phrase is: "Look what Tommy Thompson has done in Wisconsin."

Tommy Thompson is the Republican governor of Wisconsin. He was pushing the cause of pro-work welfare reform long before Congress took it on. Republicans like to point to Thompson to show that welfare reform is not synonymous with being indifferent to the fate of poor people.

The problem is that few Republicans listen carefully to what Thompson actually says about building a practical alternative to the old welfare mess.

"Most people, when they talk about welfare, especially in Congress, they think you're going to have time limits and save a lot of money," Thompson told the National Conference of Editorial Writers here last week.

That hope, he said, is false.

On the contrary, Thompson argued, a state that's serious about moving welfare recipients to work needs to spend more money, not less – on health care, child care, transportation and training.

Wisconsin has done that, even as it has cut its welfare rolls by 65 percent in a decade. When Thompson took office in 1987, the state spent $12 million a year on child care. By 1998, it will be spending $180 million annually. Thompson has also proposed a health care reform – called Badger Care – to let the working poor buy into Medicaid.

"That may be a liberal philosophy," says this politician who's proud to describe himself as both "conservative" and "progressive." His health idea may even be a little "socialistic," he said. But he added: "It's the right one."

Thompson is not a miracle worker, and his welfare reform plan, known as W-2, has critics. But at the least, Wisconsin is beyond welfare reform's rhetorical stage. "Precisely because Wisconsin is ahead of the other states, even conservative politicians found out a little sooner that simply cutting isn't going to solve problems," said Linda Gordon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin here and a student of welfare.

Madison Mayor Susan Bauman is a Democrat and, like Gordon, is skeptical of aspects of Thompson's plan. But she doesn't doubt his commitment: "Deep down inside, he really wants this to work."

As a result, the post-welfare debate here focuses not on abstractions or stereotypes, but on what needs to be done. That's where the critics come in. Anne Arnesen, the director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, worries that individuals tossed off the rolls for failing to meet work requirements don't have adequate recourse to due process. She also thinks the combination of state and federal changes will be especially harmful to the children of alcoholics and drug addicts who'll have problems meeting the requirements.

Despite the new state spending on child care, which she praises, Arnesen says the state's system will be inadequate for the large numbers of kids it will now have to accommodate. "We are actually lowering Wisconsin's standards on child care, and that is unforgivable," she says.

This is a serious concern. Many of the children involved come from troubled homes and need more, not less nurturing, and even mothers of infants only a few months old are subject to work requirements.

Mayor Bauman says that not enough is being done to track welfare recipients after they leave the rolls. In Madison, she says, "we've seen an increase in the number of people who are working full-time but have to live in homeless shelters. They're getting jobs they can't live on." And, of course, no one knows how well the reforms would work if Wisconsin's economic boom went bust.

As other states look to Wisconsin for clues about complying with the new welfare law, they will need to pay attention to the critical reports as well as the laudatory press releases. But they could especially profit from the realism of both Thompson and his critics about what it takes to make reform work.

Wisconsin was the fountainhead of Progressivism at the turn of the century and took the idea of democratic government seriously. That meant both reforming the way government worked and using it to solve problems. Thompson, whose lonely task 33 years ago was to lead Youth for Goldwater on the overwhelmingly liberal university campus here, has good conservative credentials. Yet he is unabashed in claiming lineage back to those early Wisconsin reformers.

A cynic might say that's just smart politics. But in trying to reconcile his own conservatism with his state's progressive tradition, Thompson has something useful to teach his party.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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