WASHINGTON — Wisconsin announced a revolutionary plan Thursday to guarantee an immediate job to everyone who applies for welfare--and to require them to take it.
The plan, announced by Gov. Tommy Thompson, represents the biggest break from the traditional welfare system proposed anywhere in the country.
It also offers a vivid example of the kind of approaches to welfare that states are likely to take if they are freed from federal restrictions, as they would be under the welfare reforms scheduled for final debate in the Senate beginning Saturday.
Wisconsin is somewhat more free to experiment than many other states because it has virtually no unemployment. Under the state's new plan, the state would place recipients in private-sector positions if possible and furnish state-subsidized jobs for the rest. But the new system would have none of the customary exceptions for hardships. For example, recipients would have to work even if they have small children, or lack a high school diploma or job training.
"The automatic welfare check is history," Thompson said.
The cost per person of Wisconsin's welfare program would increase under the new plan because wages would be higher than existing benefit payments and the state would have to bear additional child-care costs. But state officials hope the total cost will not rise, arguing that people will move into unsubsidized jobs or leave the welfare rolls because they do not like the government's new terms.
"We're hoping to make it cost-neutral," Thompson said in an interview.
The plan, which is expected to win approval of the state Legislature, jolted advocates for the poor and some public policy specialists. They said the new plan could be devastating for troubled, uneducated or untrained mothers who are not ready to go to work, and they raised warning flags about the cost of creating jobs for tens of thousands of parents and providing child care for their children--as provided for under the plan.
While virtually all elected officials and welfare specialists agree that the current system fails taxpayers as well as the people who receive aid, some questioned whether the nation is ready for a leap of this magnitude.
"It goes far beyond any of the experiments that we've seen in Wisconsin or other states to date," said Michael Wiseman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. "It really is ending welfare, not just ending welfare as we know it, but ending welfare--period."
The proposal would do away with the main welfare program--Aid to Families With Dependent Children, which guarantees basic cash assistance to poor families.
Instead, the state would place recipients in full-time jobs. For those applicants who cannot be placed in private-sector jobs, the state would offer community service positions and subsidized jobs with private companies. Even parents with disabilities or serious substance abuse problems would be required to work in group settings and, in some cases, attend rehabilitation clinics.
"They have to work like everybody else," Thompson said. "Everyone will have some responsibility."
Other states have imposed tougher requirements than exist under the current federal system, such as setting time limits on benefits or requiring recipients to enroll in job training or classes. But none have tied cash assistance to full-time work from day one.
Some state officials and advocates for the poor said they were worried about the consequences for children.
"There are a lot of walking wounded out there," said Seymour J. Adler, director of the department of social services in Kenosha, Wis.--a small industrial city in the southern part of the state. "They look able-bodied but they carry a lot of baggage. What's going to happen to those folks and the children they've spawned?"
Adler oversees one of the most successful county welfare experiments in the state, created under previous welfare reforms that Thompson initiated. But he and other skeptics warned that Thompson's new plan may go too far, leaving many people destitute and homeless.
Thompson may be right, Adler said, "but maybe he's wrong, and if he is it could be devastating for the lives of the people he's affected."