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 this background report by Art Hackett, the NewsHour's new national correspondent Phil Ponce, leads a debate.
ART HACKETT: Under the old system, a parent who wanted to go on welfare would come to the Milwaukee County Department of Human Services. They would meet a caseworker who would sign them up for cash payments under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, food stamps, and health care benefits through Medicaid. While applicants were required to look for work, there were limited penalties for not working. AFDC was always there as a safety net. That's what Piper Thomas of Milwaukee was seeking last month.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
September 2, 1997:
Phil Ponce leads a discussion 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.
PIPER THOMAS, AFDC Applicant: I just got my kids returned home. They were living with my parents. And I've been off AFDC for about four years. I came to apply so I will be able to pay my bills, and maybe get some food stamps and some medical assistance for me and my children.
ART HACKETT: But the system Piper Thomas knew from the last time she was on welfare is gone. Under the new system, Wisconsin Works, or W-2, there are no cash benefits, unless the person works. Applicants will be referred to a job and offered whatever childcare, transportation, and health care supports are needed to make that job work. Applicants who lack necessary skills will be offered job-related training. Workers with no work history may be placed in public service jobs, with the state paying the full salary.
Overhauling the old welfare system.
Under the new federal welfare law, participation in the program is limited to two years at a stretch, with a five-year lifetime limit. The only safety net is the state's ability to waive the work requirements in extreme cases. W-2 was patterned after an experiment known as Work Not Welfare, which was tried in two Wisconsin counties for two years. Work Not Welfare was tested where it was thought to have a good chance of success. Both counties had booming economies and plenty of jobs. The state wanted to find out if it could match welfare recipients to those jobs. Work Not Welfare was credited with reducing caseloads in Fond Du Lac County 55 percent, from 627 to 280.
Under W-2, the statewide program will have to deal with Milwaukee County's 24,000 welfare cases. That will be a far greater challenge. Five different agencies will be trying to find jobs for welfare recipients in Milwaukee County and make sure the recipients are able to fill them. Under W-2, Milwaukee County, which used to run the whole program, is responsible only for food stamps, Medicaid, and child care benefits. County workers will be working out of the same offices where the job programs are based. In one service area, the county workers will be working side by side with employees of a for-profit, publicly traded company, Maximus of McLean, VA. Maximus has already been trying to arrange jobs for the 3,500 AFDC cases it will be responsible for. Last month, Maximus held a job fair that gave a glimpse of what's to come.
WOMAN: Has everybody here, have you already determined that you're going to get that job today?
WOMAN: Have you said that today?
WOMAN: Let's say it now.
ART HACKETT: The people looking for jobs were told to put on a positive attitude, even when asked about issues that are problems for any worker, issues that are expected to be even greater problems for someone coming off welfare.
WOMAN: Your daycare situation is already taken care of, right? You don't have a problem with transportation because the Milwaukee County transit system is reliable, right? If you don't have a car, transportation is no problem for you, right?
WOMAN: Daycare is no problem for you, right?
WOMAN: Other home issues you would never bring to the workplace?
WOMAN: I like it.
ART HACKETT: Maximus feels it's responsible for solving all those problems so the applicant will no consider them a barrier to working.
GEORGE LEUTERMANN: We have Four C's Child Care, which is a longstanding, excellent company here in Milwaukee. They're available to give job seekers names of available child care providers. We--for the W-2 population--we will have transportation tokens and bus passes available, depending upon what their needs are.
YOLANDA COOPER: I just want to get a job, so I won't have to depend on AFDC no more.
ART HACKETT: Yolanda Cooper, mother of four, says the atmosphere is different from the welfare office.
YOLANDA COOPER: I know for sure when I leave here today I'm going to get me a job for sure; I'm going to have me a job. And up there it was more or less you have--they wasn't helping nobody, there wasn't no motivation. There's a lot of positive energy around here.
ART HACKETT: There was stiff competition at the job fair: Three thousand workers for 500 jobs.
PHIL WILAYTO: You know as well as I know that those jobs are not plentiful enough to absorb all the people on W-2.
A first step or a dead-end job?
ART HACKETT: Phil Wilayto is a Milwaukee labor activist. He charges that most recipients will wind up in community service or trial jobs, the bottom rungs of the W-2 ladder.
PHIL WILAYTO: A lot of them are going to wind up working low-wage jobs, subsidized by the taxpayer, still subsidized but for the private profit of a corporation.
ART HACKETT: George Leutermann disagrees.
GEORGE LEUTERMANN: There are a lot of jobs in Milwaukee right now, a lot of jobs. And we actually have about 1,600 job seekers right now. Maximus has been out working with employers, looking for entry-level jobs that are not really beginning entry-level but jobs that pay $7 an hour or more plus benefits.
ART HACKETT: Some of the positions available at the fair met that requirement. One company, which makes electromagnetic equipment, offered assembly jobs paying $6.50 to $10 an hour. But other firms were offering less.
PATTY PRICE, Human Resources Manager: These positions are entry level. They start at minimum wage. There's a shift premium for second and third shifts.
ART HACKETT: Patty Price is human resources manager for a company which makes cardboard displays.
PATTY PRICE: But we take the attitude that we're offering people an opportunity to get a foot in the door, an opportunity to start building a work history.
ART HACKETT: Few people at the fair would say the old welfare system was a desirable part of their lives. But it was a known quantity. W-2 is as much an experiment in social engineering as AFDC was 60 years ago. Wisconsin will soon found out if W-2 solves the problems welfare brought with its benefits.