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Welfare reformer urges the next step

On the third anniversary of welfare reform, a GOP governor seeks bigger state spending.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 2, 1999


It's the softer, gentler side of Gov. Tommy Thompson.

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For more than a decade, Wisconsin's Republican governor has been one of the nation's chief architects of welfare reform. He insisted that every Wisconsinite get a job, like it or not. Critics called his plans draconian.

But now he's preaching Part 2 of his gospel. It has a whole different tone: big spending, social workers working with clients one-on-one, early childhood-development centers, even a health-care plan for the working poor.

As the successes and failures of his reforms become clearer - and as President Clinton marks the third anniversary of welfare reform at a Chicago forum tomorrow - many people are watching Wisconsin's latest experiment in moving people from the dole to the workplace.

"You can't do welfare reform on the cheap," Mr. Thompson says, pounding the burly desk in his Madison office. "You can't expect people to work if they don't have day care or health care. You've got to be holistic - look at the whole family unit." In Wisconsin, he says, "We used to spend $12 million a year on day care, but this year we'll hit $175 million."

Thompson is trying to forge a new middle ground in one of the predominant social debates of the 1990s: How much government should help the poor transition from welfare to the workplace. The state, his reasoning now goes, has a big responsibility: It must help them get - and keep - jobs. "We're on the cusp of a new era - of moving from welfare's cash assistance to a broader system of support for all low-income families," says Jack Tweedy, director of the children and families program at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Since Wisconsin's reform began nearly two years ago, the state's rolls have shrunk an astonishing 76 percent. Many of those people have found jobs. Many others are in state-created "community service jobs," which range from sweeping streets to putting labels on soap containers.

Nationally, many have moved from welfare to work, too. Mr. Clinton plans to announce today that more than 410,000 of them have been hired through his Welfare-to-Work Partnership.

Critics say there are still problems. In a recent survey of former Wisconsin welfare recipients, nearly half of respondents said they have trouble paying for such basics as utilities and food.

But now that many former welfare recipients have joined the ranks of the working poor, the future of welfare is heading in two directions. The first is an all-out effort to help those who still haven't found work. The second is to aid the working poor - those who may or may not have taken a dime of public aid, but whose financial situations are precarious.

The first focuses on people like Milwaukee resident Cathy Gant, a mother of four whose jobs in recent years have included being a customer-service representative for Kmart. She says she went on welfare mostly because of trouble with alcohol and other drugs.

With a blue and white bucket hat resting low on her brow, she says matter-of-factly, "I don't want to be on welfare anymore."