Wisconsin Welfare Plans Mirror Gov. Tommy Thompson Policies

May 11, 2017

Wisconsin is once again looking to lead in welfare reform. Assembly lawmakers on Wednesday took up a number of bills that would require people who receive public benefits to meet certain requirements.

For instance, some may have to be drug tested or meet work rules. Or the state could dock the W-2 benefits of parents whose children skip school.

Back in the 1990s, Wisconsin was the model for welfare reform and some Republican lawmakers say it’s time to return.

Back at the end of January, Governor Walker had this to say while previewing his welfare reform plan, which he calls Wisconsin Works for Everyone: “There’s not a week, sometimes not a day that goes by that we don’t here from employers in every part of the state who say we need more people. We need more people to enter the workforce, not only to fill positions they have vacant but many employers say that they would take on more jobs, more business, more opportunity if they had confidence they could fill the positions they have."

Walker says welfare should be used as a trampoline, not a hammock. That’s the same sentiment former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson says led to his welfare reform efforts of the 1990s.

“People have the responsibility to get drug tested, they have the responsibility to get educated. They have the responsibility to have a job and work and get trained, and those are good things. And if you’re able to do that, there are plenty of jobs available,” Thompson says.

Thompson says that between 1989 and 1999 in the wake of his reforms, Wisconsin’s welfare rolls declined by 93 percent. He says it’s now time for the state to revisit the strategy because former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle loosened the requirements at the state level, and President Obama did the same nationally.

“The same liberal arguments are always used. You can’t find work. Well, you don’t look. You can’t get training. Well, there’s plenty of training available. That’s what I setup. I setup programs so that people could be trained to get a job and I think that’s what Walker is attempting to do,” Thompson says.

While Thompson says his welfare reform package was a huge success, some people question its effectiveness.

Kristen Slack's 2014 study found people were not better off when requirements were tied to benefits.

“If you define as success simply people leaving welfare programs, then yes, welfare reform policies probably were a success because people did leave welfare reform programs. But the real question I think is whether families who left the welfare rolls and enjoyed more economic stability,” Kristen Slack says. She's a social work professor at UW-Madison.

Slack says a study in Illinois she helped conduct in 2014 found people were not better off when requirements were tied to benefits.

Photo of U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore from 2009.
Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

Wisconsin Congresswoman Gwen Moore was a state legislator during the Tommy Thompson days. She says reformers have created a myth about people who receive public assistance.

“Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, all of these programs constitute a huge portion of our budget. And so in order to be able to attack these programs what they have tried to do is create the narrative that they’re just lazy bums taking advantage of these programs in order to build the public support to cut it,” Moore says.

In order to reform federal benefit programs in Wisconsin, the state would need a waiver from Washington D.C.