Just as Communists, radicals, and progressives traveled to Moscow in the 1920s to see socialism being built in one country, so are politicians, policy analysts, and journalists today arriving in Wisconsin to see the welfare state being dismantled. The BBC, the London Observer, and leading Japanese papers have all sent correspondents there. So have most major American news organizations, including The New York Times, whose Jason DeParle has taken up part-time residence in Milwaukee to report on the state’s “workfare” system.
What is occurring in Wisconsin is one of the most far-reaching social experiments in modern American history. Years before President Clinton signed the welfare law of 1996, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a program of time limits and work requirements, Wisconsin began overhauling its welfare system. In a more radical step, the state in September 1997 introduced the plan called Wisconsin Works, which requires everyone (with few exceptions) to work in return for cash assistance. In addition, W-2, as it’s known locally, imposes strict limits on how long one can receive that assistance.
The number of people on welfare in Wisconsin has dropped sharply, from around 100,000 cases a decade ago to fewer than 9,000 today. (The welfare caseload nationally has dropped 47 percent since January 1994.) At a Manhattan Institute forum, “Next Steps in Welfare Reform,” held in April, Lawrence Mead, a professor at New York University and a longtime proponent of welfare reform, called the Wisconsin program “absolutely revolutionary.” It was, he added, “the most positive development in American social policy, I think, for about forty years.” In Wisconsin and other states, he said, “there’s a notable lack of acute hardship. We do not see families on the street, rises in homelessness, foster care and so on…. On the contrary, we see, on balance, major improvements in the condition of the poor and the near-poor.”
The keynote speaker, Wisconsin’s Republican governor Tommy Thompson, was even more enthusiastic. “We’re shucking the status quo,” he said. “We’re tearing down the old and the outdated. We’re building the bold and embracing the daring.” The states, Thompson went on, “are showing that welfare reform is working and it’s more successful in helping the poor than the old entitlement programs such as AFDC. And no state epitomizes the success of American welfare reform more than my own state of Wisconsin.” W-2, he asserted, is “a model for the nation to follow.”
Already, other states and cities are copying it. In New York City, for example, Mayor Giuliani has brought in Jason Turner, an architect of the Wisconsin program, to reform the city’s welfare system. Under Turner’s direction, New York is transforming its welfare offices into job centers, with applicants expected to seek a paycheck rather than a welfare check. Since March 1995, when the number of cases was at its peak, nearly 500,000 New Yorkers have left welfare.
A great deal, then, is riding on the Wisconsin experiment. How accurate are the claims being made on its behalf?
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