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Tommy Thompson

Welfare Reform

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We in the United States have had considerable successes with welfare reform in helping many families to become economically independent. Let me share with you the progress of our welfare reforms and the core themes that I believe have made welfare reform successful.

When I was Governor of Wisconsin I heard frequently from parents on welfare – especially mothers – about how much they wanted to leave welfare behind and build a better life for themselves and their children. These conversations led to a number of very important lessons.

Firstly, the government has an absolutely crucial role to play in helping those who can’t provide for themselves. However, we have to be smart about how we help them. We have leant that just giving money without any expectations creates a cycle of dependency that leaves many families mired in poverty and abuse, unable to take control of their lives.

Secondly, the government’s support must be focused on helping people find and succeed at work. This means not just helping them to find good jobs but also requiring them to take the jobs and to succeed in them.

Some people found it difficult to take that first step into the working world for fear – because many had never worked before. Some would find jobs but end up leaving because of unrealistic expectations or problems that would arise. Substance abuse, physical limitations, and unhealthy relationships naturally take their toll on people’s self-esteem as well as undermining their hope and optimism for the future.

We took all of these lessons and used them as the basis for changing our system. Welfare needed to be re-grouped and re-grounded in the idea that welfare recipients must be able to support themselves and take greater responsibility for their personal lives.

The most important thing we did was to change the message that we sent. Instead of saying “You are not able, we must take care of you for ever”, we said “We believe in you – we believe you share the same values, hopes and dreams that all of us have and we believe that you are able to support yourself; we believe that no matter what troubles you have, what difficulties you face, you can overcome those problems and difficulties and you can succeed. We as the government are here to help – as your partner.”

Looking back, the first reforms were quite small. All we asked is that parents searched for work in exchange for aid. Next we wanted to make sure that their children were immunised and attended school regularly. Not much to ask, but it was something that was never asked before.

These were radical ideas at the time. Many defenders of the old system of dependency claimed that these small steps would be disasters. But of course instead of being disasters they turned out to be remarkably successful. The families succeeded. And at a time when welfare caseloads in the United States soared, in Wisconsin they fell as families stepped away from dependency and into work.

Still in spite of these developments, the old welfare system continued to encourage dependency – it failed to send an unequivocal message about the centrality of work. So, when we saw how this new way of thinking was providing new hope and new opportunity for these families, we decided to replace welfare completely and replace it with a plan called Wisconsin Works. What had started out as being a series of so-called experimental reforms turned into a completely overhauled system – a whole new way of delivering welfare.

Wisconsin Works built the expectation of work and personal responsibility into the welfare system. We invested in childcare, transportation, and job skills training to make it not only easier for mothers to go to work, but to keep that employment. The message we sent was clear: “Government is not here to take over your lives, it is here to help you so that you take over your own life and become whatever you want to become”.

Again, this was a radical idea at the time. Opponents said it would be a disaster, but instead, caseloads declined. In Wisconsin case loads dropped by over 94%! We had counties in our state that had no welfare cases and all – completely zero!

Because of the success of these reforms in Wisconsin, many of the programmes we had tried were adopted across the United States. By the mid-1990s many states were following Wisconsin’s lead and having the same positive results.

In 1996, Congress finally responded and passed the revolutionary Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Bill – TANF for short. TANF did two very important things that we, in Wisconsin, had taken a lead on.

Firstly, it made work and self-sufficiency the core of all public assistance. This meant that states were expected to get large proportions of their welfare case loads into work. Assistance was also time limited to five years, sending the message that welfare was temporary and becoming self-sufficient through work was an important goal.

Secondly, the programmes were flexible so that states could achieve their goal of getting people into work in their own way.

Many said that the reforms would be a disaster, but they were wrong. It has proven to be one of the most important pieces of social legislation in the United States, giving the states high expectations for reform while allowing them a great deal of flexibility in the implementation.

We have seen dramatic results across the United States. We have seen dramatic reductions in welfare case loads. But more important we have seen dramatic reductions in childhood poverty especially amongst minority children, along with massive increases in workforce participation among low incomes single mothers.

Now none of this is to signal that everything is perfect. We can still do a lot more to help our families. The lessons we learnt in Wisconsin have helped the whole country down the road to success. All in all welfare reform in America has been highly successful in helping millions of families find work, leaving welfare and poverty behind them.

This address was given by live video-link in 2004 by Secretary Thompson to a Welfare Symposium organised by then MP Dr Muriel Newman and held in Parliament.