May 29, 1997 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending

ED052997c: Welfare Reform Miracle

Ever since Congress passed a bill aimed at reforming the nation's $411-billion-per-year welfare industry, liberal supporters of the old welfare system have bombarded you with dire predictions about families being thrown out on the street and children starving. The naysayers don't present an alternative -- they simply say welfare reform won't work.

What they're hoping you won't notice (besides the fact that nobody's starving) is that welfare reform already is working.

But the success stories aren't the result of new programs designed and administered in Washington, so the national press corps has missed the story.

The most significant success story is Wisconsin, which has seen a dramatic drop in welfare dependency over the last decade. In 28 of Wisconsin's 77 counties, the number of people on welfare has dropped by 80 percent or more, according to a report by Robert Rector in the March/April issue of The Heritage Foundation's magazine, Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship.

How did Wisconsin pull off this miracle? Through programs that move people off welfare and into jobs, the state has served notice: Welfare in Wisconsin is no longer a free ride.

Everyone who applies for welfare in Wisconsin receives counseling on the negative effects of dependence, and is eligible for short-term aid (like car repairs) that might help the applicant find or keep a job and thus avoid welfare.

Most who do go on welfare must begin working almost immediately after enrolling. Wisconsin has instituted the country's first real, binding welfare work requirement, called Pay For Performance, under which welfare recipients receive assistance based on how much, or how little work they do. A person who performs no work receives no assistance. It's as simple as that.

Wisconsin has de-emphasized education and job training in the classroom, which have proven ineffective, in favor of activities that quickly move people into jobs. Individuals who fail to find employment within a few weeks are required to perform community-service work until a job in the private sector can be found.

In addition to providing a sound moral foundation for the welfare program -- based on the idea that you must earn what you get -- work requirements also help weed out those who truly need assistance from those who don't. The state has found that the quickest way to get rid of free-loaders is to try and put them to work. When faced with Wisconsin's work requirement, the free-loaders typically turn around and leave. By eliminating everyone from the system who doesn't need public assistance, welfare dollars can be used to assist those who need help the most.

The results have been phenomenal. "Liberal welfare experts used to insist that a successful work program might reduce welfare caseloads by 5 percent over five years; in much of Wisconsin, the number of people on welfare is steadily falling by that amount every 30 days," Rector says.

Wisconsin's success has also shattered one of the myths standing in the way of real welfare reform: That it will cost too much. While the state is spending more money getting people off welfare and into jobs, the total caseload has been reduced so drastically that total spending on welfare is much less. "Wisconsin spends more per family on welfare now than in 1987 -- but it has half the numbers of families on welfare," Rector says.

The welfare reform legislation passed by Congress last summer and signed by President Clinton is similar to the Wisconsin plan. It can work. As Rector writes, "Wisconsin has shown the way; it is now up to the rest of the nation to apply the lessons learned."

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Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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