State & Local Politics

Walker’s welfare reform makes Wisconsin model for the nation

Greg Nash

Wisconsin’s motto is “forward.”

So it is no surprise that the Badger State is, once again, leading the way with some of the most bold welfare reforms in country.

Governed by a philosophy that welfare ought to be temporary and government’s role should be to move people from dependency to work, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s latest initiative is laying the foundation for what may be the second era of welfare transformation.

The first era, of course, began with another reform-minded governor from Wisconsin. After 25 years of seeing federal expenditures on welfare explode tenfold, Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1995 championed “workfare.”

His initiative, “Wisconsin Works,” put lifetime caps on welfare benefits and helped to move those on public assistance to stable employment. In Milwaukee, Thompson’s reforms resulted in a 32 percent reduction in welfare caseloads.

A year later, Thompson’s plan went national. 

{mosads}President Bill Clinton worked with a Republican-controlled Congress to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as the welfare reform of 1996.  The law created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a federal food stamps program that required recipients to work 20-30 hours per week


As a result, federal welfare caseload dropped nearly 60 percent and the employment rates for unwed mothers jumped from 49 percent to 66 percent between 1995-2000.

By 2012, the Obama Administration  – without legal authority – suspended work requirements for federal benefits in the face of a reeling economy.

This gutted reforms from the 1990s at a time when nearly $1 trillion of taxpayer money was spent on welfare programs. Worst of all, the mindset of welfare shifted backward; it was okay to be dependent on government again.

In Wisconsin, with the economy nearing full employment, Walker is looking to put yet another Badger State stamp on welfare reform.  In February 2017, Walker announced a state budget proposal that includes “Wisconsin Works for Everyone.”

Under this proposal, work requirements currently reserved for able-bodied adults without dependents will be extended to all FoodShare recipients. As a result, any able-bodied recipient not employed 80 hours per month will need to enroll in a state job training program or risk losing benefits.

Walker is also seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to mandate work requirements for able-bodied adults in the state housing voucher program.  The state legislature must approve the initiatives. 

“Public assistance should be a trampoline not a hammock,” said Walker, summing up his philosophy on public assistance.

“Wisconsin Works for Everyone” stems from a 2015 Walker pilot program that added work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents receiving food stamps. Since then, 21,000 of those receiving FoodShare benefits gained employment through state job training, and even more have found employment independently and no longer receive benefits.

Work requirements for welfare are not a silver bullet solution to poverty. Some low-income individuals cannot work, either due to hardship or disability. 

And Walker’s plan will only succeed if those in need are connected to job training or employment opportunities, a big challenge in parts of Milwaukee and rural Wisconsin. No public policy can replace the role of family, faith, and community support. Organizations like the Joseph Project and Running Rebels are critical to Milwaukee’s fight against poverty.

But a responsible role for the government should be to move people off of public assistance and into a family-supporting job.

To achieve that, hard political decisions have to be made. This is why the road to reform is a road less traveled by many states and politicians. But Wisconsin has led the way down this rough-hewn path before.

Kudos to Gov. Walker for taking us there again.

CJ Szafir is vice president for policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), a conservative law and policy center in Milwaukee. Lauren Parrottino is a Policy Fellow at WILL.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Bill Clinton Budget Labor Scott Walker Welfare Wisconsin

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