Another Dose Of Tommy Thompson's Tough Love

Nancy Anne White has been in and out of jobs, off and on welfare, and struggling to manage such necessities as medical bills, child care, and food, ever since the father of her 3-year-old son walked out when she became pregnant. But in early July, prospects brightened for White, a 41-year-old resident of Beloit, Wis. Working through nonprofit Forward Service Corp., which used state money to provide her with everything from job training to clothing for interviews, White found work as a $7.20-an-hour customer service representative for Cablevision of Greater Beloit. Equally important, White will receive up to 20 months of free day care and health care. "I'm overwhelmed, this is so exciting," she says.

AMERICA'S MODEL? To Governor Tommy G. Thompson, White is proof that states are up to the task of moving people off welfare and into the workplace. A relentless experimenter, Thompson credits a host of local welfare reforms to an impressive 26% fall in dole numbers since taking office in 1987. With such snappy euphemisms as Learnfare, Children First, and Work Not Welfare, Thompson has built a welfare regime that penalizes childbearing, threatens fathers delinquent in custody payments with jail, and forces able-bodied recipients to stay in school, get a job, or face a sharp cut in benefits.

Now, Thompson aims to push the great welfare debate further. In early August, he plans a tough-minded overhaul of his program. Wisconsin will convert the prime federal grant, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, into a work subsidy in 1997--in effect, forcing able-bodied welfare recipients off the dole within two years. Those who find work will be provided with 12 months of child and health care, and employers are likely to get a subsidy to train and hire welfare recipients. "Only work will pay for those who can work," says J. Jean Rogers, a senior official in the Wisconsin Department of Human Services. "You will get a check as reinforcement for appropriate behavior."

Is Wisconsin a model for other states? Those who have long studied the state's experiments, such as Princeton University's Lawrence M. Mead and Michael L. Wiseman of the University of Wisconsin, say other governors can draw on three lessons: the importance of building a first-rate welfare caseworker force, the willingness to continue experimenting, and the payoff of spending money on benefits such as child and medical care. Yet, big questions remain unanswered. Unproven is how Wisconsin would fare in an economic downturn: At least some of the Wisconsin Miracle is a direct result of a booming state economy, where unemployment is just 3.3%.

RELAPSES. Welfare administrators also worry that Wisconsin hasn't solved one of the trickiest problems: keeping people from returning to the dole. Along the Illinois border in Rock County, where Beloit is located, the state is trying out most of the state's pilot programs--and rolls have dropped 33% since 1987. Yet, 30%-40% of those moving off the rolls return within a year. Why? Usually because they are trapped in low-paying jobs and face a cutoff in child and health benefits they can't afford on their own. For now, Nancy Anne White is thrilled to be back at work. To keep her there, and for Thompson to be able to truly claim welfare success, the state will have to invest more heavily in job training and long-term benefit support.


Governors who must manage devolution are mixed about its prospects.

TOMMY THOMPSON R-Wis. A states-righter who rails against Washington's "arrogance of omnipotence," Thompson's welfare reforms are aimed at shifting people into jobs. He'll cut off all direct payments to able-bodied recipients by 1997.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN R-N.J. This tax slasher says social policies must be tailored to an individual state's need, with plenty of control pushed to the local level. But she wants assurance that the feds won't leave states in the lurch during recessions.

ROY ROMER D-Colo. He sees block grants as a huge risk to fast-growing states, which would be saddled with fixed federal funds to pay mounting health-care bills. He prefers retaining federal financial control, while giving states more operating freedom.

JOHN ENGLER R-Mich. This early supporter of block grants says states are better suited to make tough decisions. At home, he has already axed welfare benefits for able-bodied adults without children and eliminated property-tax funding for schools.

PETE WILSON R-Calif. Although the shift to block grants could cost his state $13 billion over five years, Wilson covets the flexibility it would bring. He would cut social spending and shift more funding burden to counties, while abandoning affirmative action.

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