When Tommy Thompson took office as governor of Wisconsin in 1987, one of the first things he did was to bring together about a dozen people for lunch at the executive mansion to discuss welfare reform. They weren't policy wonks. They were welfare mothers, invited to tell the governor first-hand about obstacles that made it difficult for them to get and keep jobs.
Thompson took the answers he got that day, and during subsequent annual lunches with welfare mothers, and has used them to create a variety of programs to get people off of public assistance. He has remained dogged in his pursuit of welfare reform throughout his decade in office, and he hasn't been afraid to scrap what doesn't work to try something else.
The combination of Wisconsin's welfare reforms and a healthy economy have helped the state cut the welfare caseload by about 65 percent in a decade, saving more than $1 billion. Critics say it's Thompson's policies that have left fewer people eligible. But many other states have been watching closely and taking for their own some of what Wisconsin has done on welfare.
Thompson is a social conservative who has come to believe that you have to spend money liberally on welfare to save money on welfare. The latest approach is a program called Wisconsin Works. Virtually all recipients are required to work, either at a regular job, a subsidized one or in community service. For those hampered by disabilities or substance abuse, there is a transition program of education, rehabilitation or treatment. Wisconsin Works will increase spending for child care, health care, transportation, one-on-one job counseling, education, training and other support services for welfare recipients. The state will be spending $12,000 on each family, more than twice the national average of $5,662.
The governor already has achieved one of his goals--eliminating the child-care waiting list. Last December, he allotted $25 million to shore up the availability of day care services in the state. By June, the last name was off the waiting list. And now under the new welfare program, no mother with a child under 6 will be required to take a job without child care being available first.
It's not that Thompson comes up with wildly innovative ideas for how to end welfare. "The difference is he has the gusto to push the limits politically," says Andrew Bush, director of the Welfare Policy Center at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis.
Thompson's activism as governor spins the heads of some who know him from his days as a small-town legislator. First elected to the legislature at the age of 25, he came to be known as "Dr. No" for his opposition to most of what Democrats proposed. But when he switched to the executive branch, he changed, becoming an activist who believes in using government to accomplish social goals. "He's truly transformed himself," says Mordecai Lee, an assistant professor of government affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who served in the Assembly with Thompson in the mid-1970s. "Tommy very self-consciously wanted to be a different kind of governor than he was a legislator."
The governor now has his eye on getting affordable health insurance to all the residents of the state, through a program called Badger Care, which would let the working poor buy into Medicaid. If that sounds like liberal activism, the label doesn't bother Thompson. "I don't get hung up on ideological dogma when looking at problems," he says. "If we're going to be successful, we have to put money into those resources, and we've done that. I don't consider it liberal or conservative. I consider it common sense."
— Ellen Perlman
Photo by Michael Kienitz