Wis. welfare reform a model for Maine

Posted Dec. 06, 2010, at 6:31 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:29 a.m.

Gov.-elect Paul LePage and his team have a pile of work in front of them.

A generation of Democratic rule has left the state burdened by high taxes, high health care and energy costs, and the nation’s lousiest business climate. Overregulation has stifled job growth, welfare dependence grows with each passing day, and the state’s best and brightest young minds move on to better opportunities elsewhere the first chance they get.

In short, the incoming governor and the newly minted Republican Legislature have a long to-do list, which they need to begin tackling right away.

Luckily, much of what they need to do has already been done in other states.

One of the major items on the LePage agenda, for instance, is welfare reform. Today, nearly 400,000 Mainers are on some kind of welfare program, from food stamps to Medicaid to the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families cash assistance program. As a result, Maine spends a higher percentage of its state revenues on welfare than 48 other states, and is one of only a handful of states that actually spend more on welfare than on K-12 education.

Not long ago, the state of Wisconsin confronted a similar challenge. Years of liberal welfare policies in that state led to a dependency crisis which, by the mid-1980s, was consuming $1.6 billion a year, 16 percent of all Wisconsin state spending.

In response to this predicament, Wisconsin, under the leadership of then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, undertook the nation’s most ambitious welfare reform effort. Rather than begin by simply reworking existing programs, though, Thompson and his advisers began by establishing a few guiding principles around which the state’s new welfare system would be designed.

One of those guiding principles, for instance, was that the entire welfare system would be focused on putting people to work rather than simply making them dependent on a government handout. “Leisure without obligations was no longer an option,” said Jason Turner, one of the architects of the Wisconsin program.

The system was redesigned so that potential welfare applicants were required to undertake job searches before enrolling. Those who were employable were moved into private-sector jobs and provided with child care and other assistance necessary to remain working.

Importantly, those for whom a private-sector job could not be found were required to perform community service jobs in exchange for the cash welfare benefits they received. As in the world of work, if they failed to show up to their service job, their cash benefit was cut by the amount of time they missed multiplied by the minimum wage. As a matter of principle, Wisconsin’s welfare recipients had to do something in exchange for the assistance they received.

To make this “work-first” model more manageable, which was another goal of the Thompson administration, the state combined caseload management and employment services. Rather than have, as Maine does, a separate welfare caseworker and employment specialist, each working for a different state department, the state combined the two jobs into one. It merged computer systems as well, so that a single Financial and Employment Planner, as they were called, could access benefit and employment records in order to customize benefits to meet individual needs and to ensure that employment obligations were being met.

Wisconsin was careful though, not to adopt policies that encouraged welfare dependence. Employment support programs, such as child care and transportation assistance, were available to all families in need, not just those enrolled in the state’s welfare programs. Maine, by contrast, has a number of welfare benefits that can be accessed only by those on the welfare rolls, which has the effect, intended, of course, of encouraging further dependence on government.

Wisconsin’s welfare reform initiative, called Wisconsin Works, achieved astonishing results. From 1996 to 2003, the state’s cash welfare caseload dropped a remarkable 68 percent. Wisconsin’s poverty rate fell from 11.9 percent in 1996 to 9 percent in 2002, one of the steepest drops in the nation over that period.

How did Maine do by comparison? Here, the poverty rate actually increased over that period, from 11.2 percent below the poverty line in 1996 to 13.4 percent below poverty in 2002. Remarkably, only two other states in the nation had increases in poverty of this magnitude over that period of time.

Getting Maine’s welfare crisis under control will require implementing broad, systemic reforms that put low-income Mainers to work rather than trapping them in an endless cycle of poverty and dependence. Doing this will require a great deal of time and effort by the LePage administration and its legislative allies, but, fortunately for them, there are reform models out there whose success they can duplicate.

Studying what Wisconsin was able to accomplish with regard to welfare reform would be a good place to start looking for ideas that work.

Stephen Bowen of Rockport directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. His blog can be found at www.GreatSchoolsforME.org.

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