Tommy Thompson's golden opportunity

Gov. Tommy Thompson, President-elect Bush's nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), earned national notice for pioneering welfare reform in Wisconsin.

As governor, Mr. Thompson championed comprehensive support for families leaving welfare, successfully marshalling Democrats and Republicans alike to back reforms. As HHS secretary, he can provide the needed leadership so that the next stage of welfare reform expands that support to all low-income working families. His golden opportunity is close at hand.

Innovative programs in Wisconsin and elsewhere helped lay the groundwork for the federal welfare- reform law in 1996, which limits welfare checks to five years and requires recipients to work or prepare for work. One result of welfare reform is that, nationwide, the welfare rolls have been cut in half, with some states experiencing even greater declines; Wisconsin's welfare caseload has dropped by 85 percent.

The next phase of reform may not be as easy. Already the caseload decline appears to be slowing compared with the mid-1990s. The easiest-to-employ found jobs first. But even those who succeeded usually wound up in short-term, low-wage positions without health insurance.

The 1996 law is up for reauthorization in 2002, providing an opportunity to take the next step in welfare reform by adding real support for those leaving welfare for work and the millions of other low- income working families struggling to make ends meet.

Recognizing that more than quick caseload reductions were needed to sustain reform's early successes, many states and several cities, including Governor Thompson's home state, have already begun to move to the next stage of welfare reform. Their pathbreaking work is along two lines: providing effective special services to help families facing the highest barriers to work - including mental and physical disabilities, domestic violence, substance abuse, and lack of education - and building more supports for all working families, not just those leaving welfare.

This next phase of reform may cost more per family and take more creativity and leadership than simply sponsoring job searches in a booming economy and subsidizing child care for those who find work.

Treatment services, adult education, family counseling, and other direct interventions like those that Thompson spearheaded in Wisconsin don't come cheap. In a less robust economy, it will take stronger political leadership to encourage businesses to continue to hire welfare and other poor parents - much less take on those with even fewer skills who have not yet left the rolls. And, if a full-blown recession materializes, more aggressive plans will be needed to make the work-not-welfare mantra of welfare reform stick.

Thompson in his role as secretary of HHS can do much to ensure that these state and local initiatives become springboards for broad national efforts to make work the new cornerstone of the nation's safety net.

Under his leadership, the administration and Congress could forge bipartisan efforts on at least three fronts. The first concerns work itself: making sure that more workers can get unemployment insurance if they lose their jobs and that there are public-sector jobs of last resort if none are available in the private sector.

Second is expanding the eligibility of all workers for health coverage and offering greater child-care subsidies for low-income workers. Third is providing new incentives to encourage businesses to expand in low-income areas, upgrade workers' skills, and pay low-skilled workers a living wage.

Governor Thompson has been there. His leadership in Wisconsin on welfare reform's new frontier qualifies him to head efforts on the national level to help all low-income families get and keep an economic foothold. Building on experiences in Wisconsin and other state "laboratories of change," the nominee for secretary of HHS can turn work supports into a far better foundation than welfare checks for the nation's working families.

Demetra Smith Nightingale is the director of the Welfare and Training Research Program at the Urban Institute in Washington. The views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Urban Institute, its board of trustees, or its sponsors.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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