Welfare reformer urges the next step

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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."

Although drug-free for three months, she's been deemed not "job ready." So her "job" is to go to GED classes and attend counseling sessions at the Milwaukee Women's Center - a Spartan basement office in an ornate marble and stone building.

While lawyers in seersucker suits ply the hallways above, Gant and other women work through everything from domestic-violence issues to drug addictions. Gant, whose favorite activity is spending "mom and me" time with her four daughters, gets $628 per month from the state - plus food stamps, health insurance, and child care. She pays $375 in rent.

But this support won't last for long. She has 16 months before the $628 will stop coming - although the food stamps, health care, and child care will continue. That's when her federally mandated five-year limit on benefits runs out. Then she'll have to find a job. She knows her time is limited. "That's why I've got my goals," she says. After getting her GED, she wants to be a counselor at the women's center.

To get people like Gant into a job, Wisconsin is beefing up social-work efforts, giving more individual attention to those still on the rolls. Caseworkers will even ride the bus to work with a client for a few weeks if the client is unsure of the route. And "there's one caseworker in Milwaukee who goes and gets a guy out of bed every morning," Thompson says.

Or there are places like the nonprofit Employment Solutions Inc. (ESI) in Milwaukee, a state contractor charged with finding jobs for those on welfare. Clients enter this tidy former Burlington Coat Factory to find a "Customer Service" window. They can see a financial planner or head into the computer lab to practice for GED tests or write resumes.

Critics say this kind of help isn't sufficient - more job training is needed. But ESI officials say the strategy is working: 75 percent of parents assigned to ESI had a job during the first year of the program.

Thompson is also enthused about his plan to expand day care to include early childhood development centers. "Wouldn't it be smart," he asks, "to start giving these kids love and affection early on?"

Indeed, by crusading for welfare reform, Thompson creates the political cover for almost any project - including ones that more-liberal politicians might get skewered for. But other states are also trying new programs - as they figure out ways to spend the $16 billion Congress gives them each year for welfare-related spending. "As long as you call it welfare reform, you can do almost anything," says David Hoffman, president of Family Service of Milwaukee, a welfare-service provider.

And that opens many options, including the second big category of welfare-related projects - those aimed at the working poor. Wisconsin's Badger Care is among the nation's first health-care programs for those living just above the poverty line.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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