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Wisconsin welfare reform's limitations

Issue: "The trouble with Tommy," May 4, 2002

While the Wisconsin welfare reform that Tommy Thompson led has triumphantly reduced the welfare rolls, questions still remain about its long-term ability to promote stronger families and better lives for children.

When I visited the Kenosha County Job Center half a dozen years ago-it's located in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, with Lake Michigan to the east and the Illinois state line to the south-I was impressed with its 54,000 square feet of calibrated administration in color-coordinated offices. Next to the Job Center was Aladdin's Castle Family Entertainment, and the facility itself had a Disneyland feel. On the way from the parking lot to the reception area, a sign on one wall promoted a self-esteem workshop: "You are scheduled to begin an exciting adventure next week."

This wasn't bad. For those used to welfare offices with bulletproof glass, scarred linoleum, and cramped cubicles, this Thompson administration showcase-including a reception area with light wood, bright walls, purplish heather carpeting, circular wooden tables with padded blue seats, and an 18-foot ceiling-wasn't bad. A bright and spacious children's playroom, with lots of toys and books like Where the Wild Things Are, was also a plus for mothers and children who had experienced too many wild things.

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Further in, the adventure continued. Welfare recipients now called "participants" received help in comfortable, modular office areas with light blue-gray panels. Wisconsin's welfare reform became popular with liberals because the state spent a lot of money to provide pleasant offices and to hire lots of social workers. It became popular with conservatives because Wisconsin rules emphasized finding a job, with a reduction in welfare benefits for participants who refused to participate. Most of all, Wisconsin-style reform became popular because it massively reduced the welfare rolls. Program Director George Leutermann bragged, "We treat our participants like kings and queens"-and for those previously treated as cows whose feeding troughs needed periodic refilling, that's not bad.

Except that the queens were told repeatedly that kings are irrelevant. Computer-printed signs dominated the walls of two large Kenosha training rooms: "A family doesn't need a man to be whole." "Stop waiting for Prince Charming, his horse broke down." Snide feminism of this sort is accurate in noting that welfare moms should not be passively waiting, but it recognizes neither that marriage is one way out nor that children need a father. When I asked Operations Manager Larry Jankowski about dumping the Prince Charming goal, he said, "We tell them straight out that marriage is not the answer."

Other signs suggested an alternative answer: "I have the power within me. What I focus on expands." "You're a one-of-a-kind design." Since that last exhortation seems to suggest the existence of a Designer, a question logically followed: Was teaching about God, or at least the Alcoholics Anonymous concept of a "higher power," acceptable within the Wisconsin experiment? "There's absolutely no reference to a higher power at this center," Mr. Jankowski insisted: "This is a self-actualization technique." As another poster put it, "If you think you're someone special, you are."

As HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson tries to actualize the Wisconsin approach across the country, questions remain. Children generally do better when their mothers leave welfare and go to work, so it's good for them and their moms to gain independence from government, but raising children without a father is very hard: Are there ways to promote marriage? Government agencies are spending money to get women to work, but a deeper problem concerns men who are unskilled, unemployed, and often unmarriageable. How can they be encouraged to move from adultery to adulthood?

Finally, what about participants who are in not just economic trouble but spiritual bondage? The Kenosha goal was to change habits-to change a person on the outside-but it did not try to touch the inside. Most of us would not want a governmental program to do so, but is wiping the outside of the glass sufficient? If not, how can HHS use vouchers and other means to promote faith-based programs? HHS Assistant Secretary for Family Support Wade Horn has emphasized the importance of both family and faith, but Mr. Thompson has not been a leader on such issues.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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