When then Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson introduced the Wisconsin Works (W-2) proposal in November of 1994, he cited this principle first among those that would govern the new program: “For those who can work, only work should pay.” Gerald Whitburn, then Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services, cited the “only work should pay” principle as the “central tenet” of W-2. The Thompson administration’s “1999 Plan” document, in which the W-2 proposal was first spelled out in detail, identified “work as the only alternative” (to cash welfare) and noted:
The new system must provide a means for a willing parent to provide income for his or her family, but it should only provide for this income through work.
Almost from the moment the W-2 proposal was introduced, however, an erosion in the “only work should pay” principle began. Over time, through a combination of legislative changes and administrative practice, that principle has been decimated. Now, work is clearly not the only activity that pays under W-2 (if it ever was). What makes the program stand out from its peers in other states is the high level of client engagement — that is, the very large per-centage of program participants who are required to engage in some activity as a condition of receiving cash benefits. Very often, however, that activity consists of something other than work.