Strict Rules, Hard Choices In WisconsinBy Barbara Vobejda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26 1997; Page A01
With Sept. 1 looming on the calendar, the day when Wisconsin rolls out the nation's most radical set of welfare rules, the caseworkers in this aging, industrial town are huddled in meetings trying to decide who will get forced off public assistance.
It is a process going on across the state, as welfare workers sift through their caseloads and consider new applicants, one by one, determining how they will fit into a new system of revamped philosophies and work incentives. In effect, welfare families are being divvied up into different stacks; some will get subsidized and some will get cut off.
On their list in Sheboygan is a single mother of four, a Hmong refugee, who earns $100 a week working part time at a self-service laundry. She speaks little English but has shown up at work reliably. Under the new rules, that means she's "job ready," the caseworkers agreed. And that label brings an ominous new reality: She will lose the $300 she receives in monthly benefits.
"It's like there's a new sheriff in town and he isn't so friendly," said Mitch Birkey, a Sheboygan County welfare supervisor.
Even in the current national frenzy of get-tough welfare policies, accelerated by enactment of a new federal welfare law last year, Wisconsin is about to impose a set of reforms more dramatic than those of any other state.
Like elsewhere, Wisconsin is no longer allowing recipients to sit home and collect a check. Those considered unable to work in the private sector must spend up to 40 hours a week at job preparation and community service assignments or they will lose their benefits.
But what makes Wisconsin different is its treatment of those deemed most capable of work, those considered job ready.
These are often welfare mothers who are neither fully self-sufficient nor fully dependent on public assistance. They cycle on and off the system or receive some benefits to supplement their part-time, low-wage jobs.
Other states will continue to help these women while they look for jobs or work part time. In Wisconsin, those deemed job ready, even if they have worked sporadically at the minimum wage, are soon to lose their welfare checks, regardless of whether they have a job now or money to pay the bills.
Under one state projection, that could apply to as many as 40 percent of those trying to come on the rolls, and about 25 percent of those already on welfare. In Sheboygan so far, the figures are running much higher: Of the 58 welfare families whose cases have been reviewed, 32 have been placed in the "job ready" category.
If these adults fail to find work and become desperate, caseworkers can later place them in workfare slots community service jobs funded by the state. But all who are capable of finding a paying job are expected to do so.
In Sheboygan, caseworkers focused earlier this month on a 24-year-old mother who has held a succession of low-end jobs and, recently, has been in and out of a homeless shelter with her 4-year-old son. She has often collected welfare to supplement her pay. But at the moment, she's juggling two part-time jobs. That makes her "job ready," which means there will be no more welfare check to tide her over if she loses her job again.
Next, they took up the case of a single mother of four who has been receiving assistance since a back injury led her to quit her cleaning job months ago. The workers said they would check her medical records, and if her back has healed, she'll see her last welfare check, now $709 a month, in September.
Pamela Holcomb, who is studying Wisconsin's welfare change for the Urban Institute, said it is precisely cases like these, and questions about whether such families can support themselves, that have led other states to move more slowly. But, she added, "Wisconsin has great optimism and a great economy and they're willing to say: These are the principles and let's go with them regardless of the risks."
The impending package of laws known as "Wisconsin Works" is based on the philosophy that everyone is capable of doing something. And if they're only working part time and welfare is picking up the rest, that could prove a disincentive for them to find full-time employment. Better to cut them off.
To carry that out, the new program establishes four tiers into which its public assistance rolls are divided. At the top of the ladder are the job ready, who may be eligible for a loan, help finding jobs, child care, food stamps and medical assistance, but no cash benefit.
Below that are "trial jobs," where the state subsidizes wages paid by a private employer; community service jobs; and, for those with disabilities or other barriers, "sheltered workshops" where recipients perform low-skilled jobs under close supervision.
For those on the lower rungs, welfare benefits will be earned, but checks will be docked if recipients don't show up. If they run afoul of the rules three times, they are kicked off the rolls. Virtually no one will be exempted from doing some kind of work.
Wisconsin, perhaps knowing the force with which it is thrusting people into the work force, has built up an unrivaled support system to help people get and stay employed. Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (R), who has staked his career on the success of his welfare programs, plans to increase state spending on welfare by 40 percent in each of the next two years, in part to create new community service jobs. And he has more than tripled spending on child care to $185 million, eliminating the waiting lists that plague many states.
Also, welfare mothers will get to keep all of the child support they receive, unlike other states that allow them to keep only $50 a month or, in some cases, nothing until welfare costs are repaid.
"Wisconsin Works" has been tested in just two counties, Fond du Lac and Pierce, and in both, caseloads have dropped dramatically. In Pierce, a rural county in the southwestern corner of the state, the number of families on welfare has dropped from 370 a decade ago to 30 in June, state figures show. In Fond du Lac, the numbers have fallen from 1,172 to 149 over the same period.
"If you had talked to me even six months ago, I would never have predicted this rate of success," said Edward Schilling, director of Fond du Lac County's social service department. "It is almost beyond belief."
Most of those who have gone off the rolls in Fond du Lac have entered low-skilled jobs at just above minimum wage. Of the 88 people placed in jobs in June, for example, the average rate of pay was $5.60 an hour and only one in eight was offered health insurance.
But as the program expands to the rest of the state, to large cities such as Milwaukee, where two-thirds of the state's 38,000 welfare families reside, the challenge may be greater.
Even Schilling, whose experience in Fond du Lac has him spouting enthusiasm for the state's new program, foresees difficulties in Milwaukee.
"You couldn't pay me enough money to come out there and try to replicate this," he said, predicting that the urban setting and multigenerational dependence in the city will make welfare reform "extremely painful."
If Fond du Lac and Milwaukee define the parameters of the success and challenge of Wisconsin's new experiment, somewhere in between is Sheboygan County.
Here, jobs are relatively easy to come by, caseloads are manageable and welfare workers say they already have spent countless hours preparing their families for the program. But for many recipients, the changes will nevertheless bring a shocking new reality.
Leanne Behnke, a 30-year-old single mother who works part time at a fast-food shop, knows that her $440 monthly check is soon to end. By working now, she realizes she has proven herself job ready.
"There are some people, just like me, who have certain skills, but they're for low-pay, dead-end jobs," said Behnke. "I just think these changes are too drastic. I don't think they're realistic."
Sharon McCormick, who runs the county's welfare staff, said she worries about how some of the "job ready" families will make it.
McCormick said the staff would keep tabs on their families and, if necessary, reassess who should get benefits. But if parents refuse to work and, as a result, neglect the well-being of their children, she said, the county will call in child welfare officials to determine whether the children should be removed from their parents.
"Children will not live on the streets in Sheboygan," she said.
For the workers making these decisions, said McCormick, all of this comes down to difficult "gut judgments."
In the case of the 24-year-old mother and her 4-year-old boy, for example, the caseworkers spent nearly an hour talking about why she hasn't been able to keep a job or find a permanent home.
The young mother is attractive, personable and easily finds work she just can't keep it. Her family complains that she parties too much and the caseworkers know she may soon be kicked out of an apartment she has been sharing with a friend.
But she doesn't have a drug abuse problem, mental illness or any other serious barrier to keep her from working. And so, one by one, each staff member in the room gives a recommendation. They all agree no more welfare checks.
They are betting that, once the net has been taken away, she'll pull herself together, prodded by a new set of rules to finally make it on her own.
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