Remember Clinton's 1992 promise to end welfare as we know it and the GOP's 1994 pledge to reform welfare? Clinton's proposed overhaul was DOA on Capitol Hill, and he vetoed two GOP-backed reform plans. If all you heard was the debates in Washington, you'd call welfare reform a dead end.
The truth is almost the opposite. States are experimenting, trying to see what policy changes might turn the welfare safety net into an economic ladder. This burst of welfare innovation has been fueled by the Clinton Administration's granting 37 states some 60 waivers from rigid federal rules on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the nation's principal welfare program. It's stunning how widespread the innovation has become: More than 10 million people, or over 75% of welfare recipients, are affected by state experimentation.
Now, Wisconsin Governor Tommy G. Thompson has signed one of the most sweeping overhauls of all, the "Wisconsin Works" plan. It would provide welfare payments only to those willing to work, seek work, or get training. To make "workfare" possible, Wisconsin will provide child care, job training, transportation, extended Medicaid benefits and, in some cases, subsidies to employers. All this costs money, and Wisconsin will actually spend more money, at least in the short run.
The program has promise, and the federal government should grant Wisconsin the waiver it needs. Yet Washington should monitor the program carefully. There is a lot of skepticism about whether an unskilled single mother can support herself and her children by working, especially when the next economic downturn strikes. Yet, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1932: "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." Let's find out if workfare really works.