THE STATE OF WORKFARE
SEPTEMBER 2, 1997
Wisconsin has replaced traditional welfare with a workfare program known as Wisconsin Works, or W-2. But will Wisconsin Works really end welfare as we know it? After a background report by Art Hackett, the NewsHour's new national correspondent, Phil Ponce, leads a debate.
JIM LEHRER: Now, a discussion of this Wisconsin plan led by the NewsHour's new national correspondent Phil Ponce. He has been working as a journalist in Chicago for several years, the last five with WTTW, the Chicago Public Television Station. Welcome, Phil.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
September 2, 1997:
A backgrounder on Wisconsin's workfare program.
August 25, 1997:
A look at how welfare reform is affecting people in California's Imperial Valley.
October 1, 1996:
How states must now devise their own plans: Elizabeth Brackett in Wisconsin, Paul Solman in New York, and Jeffrey Kaye in California, report.
Read a special Online NewsHour backgrounder on the wide range of issues -- and tight deadlines -- states face when crafting new welfare programs.
July 31, 1996:
Three members of Congress discuss the politics between the new welfare reform bill passed this year.
May 21, 1996:
Two state legislators and two national Welfare experts debate the merits of the Wisconsin Works, or W-2, welfare reform program, often held up as a model for national welfare reform.
Browse the Online NewsHour's welfare coverage.
PHIL PONCE: Thank you, Jim.
Is Wisconsin a model for the rest of the nation? We explore that now with Linda Stewart, the secretary of the Department of Workforce Development for Wisconsin, and Peter Edelman, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Health & Human Services in the Clinton administration. He resigned last year over his objections to the new welfare bill the President signed and is now a professor at Georgetown Law School.
Linda Stewart, welfare reform seems to have worked in two counties in Wisconsin much smaller than Milwaukee. What makes you think it can work statewide?
LINDA STEWART, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development: Well, actually welfare reform in Wisconsin has been operating statewide for over 10 years with a number of different pilots. The two counties that were spoken about in the previous clip were two counties that were advancing the complete model of W-2. In the state--
PHIL PONCE: W-2 being Wisconsin Works?
LINDA STEWART: Wisconsin Works, yes. Statewide, we've had a reduction in caseloads of about 60 percent, in Milwaukee County over the last 10 years about 40 percent.
Can absolutely anyone find a job in Wisconsin?
PHIL PONCE: Having said that, if anyone--if somebody wants a job and they're willing to work, can they absolutely find a job in Wisconsin?
LINDA STEWART: We believe that people can absolutely find a job. Last week alone the governor was participating in President Clinton's Work Not Welfare partnership. And he asked employers in Wisconsin to pledge opportunity--job opportunities for welfare recipients. Within one week he received pledges from over 450 employers. And we are constantly receiving calls from employers, and the W-2, or Wisconsin Works providers have also developed strong networks with employers and have identified several thousand job opportunities.
PHIL PONCE: Peter Edelman, Linda Stewart describes an almost seamless transition from welfare to work. Do you think it's that seamless?
PETER EDELMAN, Georgetown Law School: I wish it were that easy. I think that the Wisconsin Works has been really oversold. It is an ambitious plan. They're putting in money; that's good. But I think this is high risk stuff.
PHIL PONCE: Specifically, how has it been oversold, and why is it high risk?
PETER EDELMAN: Well, we're told, of course, that this is the best plan in the country, that it's already working. I might make a national point to start with because it has a counterpart in Wisconsin. We're expecting almost four million people who are adults who are on TANIVE, the successor to welfare, to find jobs over the next five years. That's a tall order. And we're hearing that the welfare rolls have gone down, that wonderful things have happened. We haven't even started the heavy lifting yet. In Wisconsin, in Milwaukee County alone, they've got to find jobs for something like 20,000 people who don't have jobs right now. The Center on Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, did a study using conservative assumptions and found that over the next 10 years there are about two job seekers, about two people who are going to want jobs for every job that they can project that will be available.
Are there enough jobs to meet the demand?
So that's the problem--is I don't think that we really are going to see enough jobs. And Wisconsin, with all of the hype here--this is not a safety net program--there are time limits. You can only be in one of their community service jobs--and I think that the community service jobs are a good thing--but you can only be in one of those for two years. You can only have five years of assistance overall. And so if the time comes when people have played by all the rules and they can't find a job, they're going to be out in the cold. That's a problem with this new so-called welfare reform nationally, and it's a problem in Wisconsin. Right now if somebody comes on in, in Wisconsin, what's going to happen is that they're going to be classified by some street level bureaucrat as to whether their job ready, or they get one of these other tiers of assistance. It's not at all clear what happens if somebody says, okay, you're job ready, you go out and go to work, and they go out and they can't find a job--not at all clear.
PHIL PONCE: Let's get Linda Stewart's reaction too. One of the things he mentioned, specifically, the whole issue of the safety net. How porous, how much has the safety net shrunk, if at all?
LINDA STEWART: Well, first of all, I think it should be clear that in Wisconsin the reason we have been working on welfare reform for 10 years is because welfare was not working. In Milwaukee County alone a recent study by the Annie Casey Foundation showed that child poverty had increased from 14 percent to 38 percent over a 20-year period. And Wisconsin had one of the highest paying benefits in the country. Our whole approach to changing welfare is to help get people out of poverty. And while we hear a lot of studies and we see a lot of studies that talk about there are not enough jobs, our attitude is let's get out there and try to get people into jobs.
PHIL PONCE: The question I was specifically asking you about was the issue of the safety net. What is your response to that?
LINDA STEWART: The safety net is that, one, as people come into the W-2 office, if they're ready for a job, we will help them get a job. And they will also continue to get medical assistance; they will get food stamps; they will get child care; and they will get other kind of support services, transportation, case management services. Those people that are not job ready will go into a work experience component and in that work experience component they will get training that will help them get into an entry level. If a parent is unable to work because they have other barriers, including problems with substance abuse, or if you have a child that has a disability, we have a category where you will go into that and your work experience may possibly be staying home, taking care of your child. Our model is a flexible model, where we take that individual and we try to create a situation that will help them get into the workforce and be able to take care of their children, so we feel we have a safety net.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Edelman, are you satisfied with that description of a safety net?
PETER EDELMAN: No, I'm not satisfied, and that does not answer your question. First of all, I think we can all agree that we want people to go work and that the welfare system that we have in place was not successful in that respect. That was a problem all over the country. The problem is that we aren't responding to that nationally. Wisconsin actually is ambitious about getting people into jobs. I like that. I don't know why they've said that you can only be in a community service job for two years, why they have, if they're serious about having a total system that promotes work but says, look, what about when a recession comes? We haven't even talked about that yet. People are not necessarily going to have jobs--who may play by all the rules and end up with nothing--and Ms. Stewart didn't really answer that in her answer to you. We need--if we're going to have good welfare policy and jobs policy, we need jobs and then we need a safety net for people who aren't able to find a job or aren't in a position to go to work.
The recession question.
PHIL PONCE: Linda Stewart, how about the recession question, what happens when unemployment goes up? Right now it's, what, 3.5 percent in Wisconsin?
LINDA STEWART: Well, if there is a recession, Wisconsin will do what we've always done. We will come up with the strategy to make sure that we help take care of families. The issue of a safety net is one that keeps coming up and, in my view, is a smokescreen around keeping what we had before. Families cannot get out of poverty on $500 a month. They can barely pay their rent. By working a minimum wage job alone, with all the support that we have in place, a family can have up to $800--a family of three will have up to $800 a month in additional cash to help take care of their needs. Part of what concerns us in Wisconsin is that all the nay sayers keep throwing up all the road blocks as to why not, why it won't work, instead of getting in there with us and helping us make it work. We are seeing success stories every day. And that's what we're working for. We're not working for keeping people in poverty.
Is Wisconsin a role model for the rest of America?
PHIL PONCE: Having said that, do you see Wisconsin's model as a national role model?
LINDA STEWART: Absolutely. Wisconsin's model was built on trying to provide what we think people need to be able to get into the workforce. One: we are providing child care, and child care in Wisconsin far exceeds people that are in poverty. We will provide child care for people that are at or below 165 percent of poverty, and they will continue to get that up to 200 percent of poverty. Our governor has been pushing to expand eligibility for medical assistance. We're in the process now of trying to implement a new program called Badger Care, where people that are currently receiving Medicaid quickly lose that eligibility once they get into the workforce. Our model will allow for the same kind of health care support that we are now providing with child care--families up to 200 percent of poverty will be able to get health care assistance. Our approach in Wisconsin is what do families need to be in the workforce because work is the best way out of poverty, not a welfare check.
PHIL PONCE: Peter Edelman, how do you respond to the possibility that Wisconsin could be looked to by other states as a role model?
PETER EDELMAN: I think if one took the idea of work and community service jobs and added to it the idea that there's some people who are not in a position to go to work--you know, in Wisconsin, mothers are being made to go to work when the kids are 12 weeks old--and we had--we went into it with a little bit more care in child care--they have provisionally licensed child care where they don't even know what people are doing. The Milwaukee Journal had an investigative report last week that showed one mother who was taking care of thirty-four kids and collecting from the county for every one of those kids. We need that sort of oversight. I'm worried in the end about what happens to children. We want moms to go to work; we want families to go to work. I agree with Ms. Stewart that that's the best way to get role models for kids, but if they're going to end up in a family that gets cut off, that's played by all the rules, and there's nothing there for them at the end of the road, that, in the end, is tragic.
PHIL PONCE: As someone who's a critic of the Wisconsin plan, do you grant them some successes, some steps that you agree with?
PETER EDELMAN: I grant them the success of everybody who's gotten a job which is partly the hot economy. I grant them the possible success of changing a mentality, which is very, very important. I grant them the investment of money that they've made. Now we need to make sure and I also--one of the things that we haven't talked about is that child care advocates in Wisconsin have done a terrific job. You know, when Gov. Thompson first proposed this, he was talking about co-payments--that's how much the worker has to pay toward child care--that were exorbitant; that were impossible. Those have now been cut down to more manageable levels because there's been an effort by people who are on behalf of the moms and kids to make this work, positive effort, not negative. And so I grant them what's been done. I think that working together and responding, I don't know why they didn't put the safety net in there in the first place, why we have to wait for a recession for a response on that. But there are some elements here that if the standards are there and if the help is there, and the safety net is there, actually could be promising.
PHIL PONCE: Linda Stewart, what would you like to say as far as when will you know if this statewide experiment is a success?
LINDA STEWART: Well, as far as we're concerned, in Wisconsin we're already being successful, because we've seen the benefits, as I said, of 10 years of experience. But I'd like to thank Mr. Edelman for that example he just used because what we've done in Wisconsin is that our model has been developed by working in collaboration with local people, with advocates, with people in the community. And what we've tried to do is craft a model that can be responsive, that's flexible enough to meet the needs of that individual family. That is what we think helps ensure that we will have a safety net. We're not putting people in a cookie cutter mold, where it's all or nothing. We're also working with two-parent families, which was something that was unheard of in the system before. We're allowing people to make mistakes, and to start all over again. We're also working collaboratively with our child welfare system. In Wisconsin we have listened to people; we've listened to participants in welfare; and we think we've got a model that will be responsive to people getting into the real world and having for their families what Mr. Edelman and I have for our families.
PHIL PONCE: And with that, Linda Stewart, Peter Edelman, I thank you.