Wisconsin provides key test in move from welfare to work

NEEDY residents of Wisconsin who request public aid these days increasingly receive a simple but revolutionary reply: Get a job.

Pat Rice took this advice. A month ago, she was on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main welfare program. Prodded by a state-funded program, she's now an office assistant at a Milwaukee treatment center. But she has no illusions that everyone on aid can do the same: ''It's hard to find a job today.''

As the United States House of Representatives moves this week toward passage of a sweeping overhaul of federal welfare, ''Wisconsin'' is the watchword on many Republican lawmakers' lips.

Over the last seven years, Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson has shaped a model program that aims to get recipients off welfare rolls and onto private payrolls as fast as possible.

By one measure he has produced results: Since 1989, the number of welfare recipients in Wisconsin has fallen 3 percent, while increasing 35 percent in the rest of the nation during that time, according to a report by Princeton University researcher Lawrence Mead.

But welfare reform like Wisconsin's may not automatically equal big budget savings. Many experts caution that job-training, child care, and other programs vital for the transition to work are at least as costly as current welfare programs.

''The movement toward work instead of welfare will require greater spending if we want people to be self-sufficient and above poverty, and today that's a big if,'' says Demetra Nightingale, director of the welfare and training research program at the Urban Institute in Washington.

As Ms. Rice implies, getting a job isn't always an easy experience for those on the lower end of the economic scale. ''I got a friend who has a degree and she still can't find a job,'' she says.

Constant involvement by caseworkers dedicated to ''workfare'' is important.

The Congressional Budget Office, for its part, recently estimated that no state would be able to produce the jobs needed under the proposed GOP welfare revision.

But Wisconsin state officials say jobs, although not necessarily well-paying, are plentiful in the Milwaukee area and throughout most of the state.

''Even in communities with high unemployment there are always jobs,'' says Jean Rogers, the administrator of public aid for Governor Thompson.

''Just as in other places, there are jobs going begging in Milwaukee and there are also jobs in the [suburbs],'' Ms. Rogers says. Such low-income jobs are solid steppingstones to more remunerative work that can be found later, she adds.

Replacing AFDC

Wisconsin is slowly replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main federal welfare program, with a scaled-down aid package based on ''mutual responsiblity.'' In order to receive public assistance, the poor must work or upgrade their job skills.

The plan is based on the belief that ''everybody has personal responsibility for their own lives and the lives of their families and everyone has something of worth they can contribute to their community,'' Rogers says.

Although the details of the coming program replacing AFDC are sketchy, reforms enacted by Thompson since 1988 trace the rough outlines of future public aid in Wisconsin.

Since entering office in 1987 he has reduced the number of residents on AFDC rolls by 24 percent, in part with the help of an expanding economy.

The most far-reaching initiative was launched on Jan. 1 in two of Wisconsin's rural counties.

Work Not Welfare requires aid recipients to sign a contract pledging to work for benefits and find a job or begin a training program within 30 days.

After 12 months, recipients must work in the private sector or in a public job. After 24 months, cash benefits end, with child care and health-care benefits cut off after 12 more months.

Pilot program

Work Not Welfare is one of a few state aid measures nationwide that both requires work and limits the period people receive benefits. Thompson will probably include at least some of its features in the sweeping welfare overhaul he plans to have in place statewide by 1997, state officials say.

Critics say Work Not Welfare cannot serve as a credible pilot for a statewide program because Thompson has enacted it only in two rural counties and not in Milwaukee, the home of some 45 percent of Wisconsin aid recipients and the state's toughest proving ground for welfare.

''Any experiment that isn't tried in Milwaukee doesn't tell you too much about how to fix the welfare problem in the state,'' says David Riemer, chief of staff to Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.

Thompson would be short some 40,000 jobs if he tried to move all of Milwaukee's needy from welfare rolls to employee rolls, says George Gerharz at the Social Development Commission.

Need for jobs

Indeed, Milwaukee would reveal how, in many cities, governments aiming to reduce welfare dependency must be willing to create thousands of public service jobs, welfare administrators say. ''If the state government is going to make everybody work, it's got to come up with jobs,'' says Mr. Gerharz, deputy director of the commission.

But Rogers, the state's administrator of aid, says there are enough jobs in the Milwaukee area for city residents. Only the comparatively few people with a debilitating condition would require community service work, she says.

Up until now, Thompson has avoided the state's biggest city because of opposition from the welfare bureaucracy, says Milwaukee Mayor Norquist, a Democrat and proponent of welfare reform.

State public aid bureaucrats ''are very threatened with welfare reform because if they don't have welfare, they don't have a job,'' Norquist says.

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