Welfare reform in Wisconsin
By Lawrence Mead
This paper is a study of welfare reform in Wisconsin and the nation. America is again girding to reform welfare at the federal level, an effort it has made regularly for over thirty years. In the past, reform largely meant implementing ever-tougher requirements that adults on welfare work in return for support. The new effort, led by the new Republican majority in Congress, while it includes tougher work tests, focuses mostly on curbing eligibility for young, unmarried mothers, limiting the time recipients can draw support, and devolving more control to states.
These proposals have much to recommend them. They are truly radical, and welfare needs radical change. However, the new approach may ignore what past efforts have achieved. In this study, I hope to show that the potential of an administrative style of reform, such as requiring work, is much greater than commonly realized. Specifically, I will demonstrate that:
- Tougher work requirements can slow the growth in welfare, as well as raise work levels on welfare. Effective work programs appear to be the main reason why Wisconsin has cut dependency in recent years, despite a national recession and generous welfare grants.
- Effective reform depends on a paternalist administrative style that affords support, but enforces work and other mores through close supervision of welfare adults.
- Public managers and national policymakers can promote this style in welfare-reform programs nationwide. At bottom, reform is an administrative problem. The main impediment to it is a political culture impatient with bureaucratic development.
I focus mainly on Wisconsin. The state is an exemplar that shows the potential for an enforcement approach to reform. It is the only state outside the deep South to have reduced its welfare rolls in recent years, a period when most of the country suffered large increases. It is also a hive of innovation in antipoverty policy, with initiatives coming from the state government and also from many counties and private groups.
From the many experiments going on in the state, not only in welfare employment, one can discern a paternalist model for reform. The way forward in welfare appears to be to combine aid to the needy with strict requirements that they must fulfill, and to enforce these with case managers who monitor welfare adults closely. Such a vision can sound oppressive to a nation dedicated to freedom. Wisconsin suggests what it would mean in practice. There, the most effective counties already have the great majority of their recipients assigned to meaningful tasks. The result is not tyranny, but improved functioning and a more integrated society.
Part 1 establishes the first of my three points above. Over the last thirty years, welfare has changed from a liberal to a conservative issue. Reformers now seek mainly to change welfare itself, not reform the society. The welfare rolls have lately grown rapidly, driven by serious family and work problems among the poor, plus the recent recession. Few realize, however, that a force on the other side has been the latest set of welfare work requirements, which were implemented over the same period. States vary in how many recipients they have involved in work programs, and that factor compares favorably with others in explaining differences in welfare growth around the nation.
Tough work programs appear to have reduced welfare in Wisconsin. The state’s achievement reflects special political and institutional assets — a reforming governor, innovation in many localities, a tradition of leadership in social policy, limited political divisions, a supportive political culture, and exemplary local government. If welfare reform is a task for government, no state begins with stronger institutions than Wisconsin.
Part 2 looks more closely at how the state produces its results. I examine three reform programs — the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training program, or JOBS, which is now the national work program in welfare, plus school-attendance and child-support programs specific to Wisconsin. I rely on field interviewing of program administrators at the state level and in six counties plus, in the case of JOBS, an analysis of program data for all counties. Both approaches allow me to identify which of the six counties perform best (although all are probably high-performing by national standards) and why. A paternalist image of successful reform is confirmed. The best counties in JOBS are those which insist most firmly that recipients participate and work, and which back this up with effective oversight. Much the same dynamic appears to operate in the other programs, although data on them is limited.
Part 3 draws implications for the nation. The supervision of recipients through case management appears to be an underused strategy in welfare administration. Clients respond favorably, in attitude as well as behavior, when program staff expect them to observe requirements such as working or staying in school. More generally, paternalist programs that combine aid and requirements seem the most constructive route toward reform, although they also have important limitations. Public managers should see their task in welfare as governing the dependent and not, as policy analysts usually present it, as allocating resources. To govern well requires improved bureaucracy and monitoring systems that not even Wisconsin has developed.
National policymakers can help by changing welfare law to permit more demanding work programs and improving welfare administration. Reforming welfare may save money on balance, but it requires more bureaucracy rather than less. While paternalist reform is popular with the public, it is hard to justify to partisan leaders preoccupied with changing the scale of government.
I owe a great debt to many officials of the Department of Health and Social Services in Wisconsin. Secretary Gerald Whitburn welcomed my research. Jason Turner, employment and training manager for the department, helped organize my fieldwork. Most of all, Joanne Rowe answered endless queries about the JOBS data I used for my analyses, and John McPeek produced special computer runs to provide me demographic data on JOBS clients on a county basis. A great many managers and staff at the county level took time to answer my questions.
I also am indebted to Jim Miller and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), which funded this project. Jim gave me what every researcher longs for — resources and a free hand. WPRI has done much to introduce new ideas about policy into Wisconsin. In this instance, it is helping me publicize something the state is already doing well. In welfare, Wisconsin is a beacon to the nation.
Not everyone will agree with my conclusions. It is important to stress that they represent my opinion solely, not those of the Thompson administration, the Department of Health and Social Services, or WPRI. I have had no input from anybody in or out of Wisconsin about how to write this report.