Church Is Cool to Wisconsin Welfare Plan
Schaeffer, Pamela, National Catholic Reporter
Catholic leaders in Wisconsin have expressed strong reservations about some aspects of that state's radical welfare plan, which ends cash payments to children. The "Wisconsin Works" plan replaces Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a requirement that parents work, preferably in the private sector, along with cash grants to supplement workers, pay.
The program provides assistance to employers who provide jobs and makes available cash grants for community service jobs for people unable to get jobs in the private sector.
In return for 40 hours of work or job training, a family, or "work unit," employed outside the public sector would receive a cash grant amounting to 70 to 75 percent of what they would earn if working for minimum wage.
People who are unable to hold steady jobs would be steered into provisional jobs or rehabilitation programs.
The plan, signed into law on April 25 and awaiting federal approval, has been praised for its shift from welfare to work and for its broad support to the working poor. Health and child-care subsidies are offered to all working families in the program. which is expected to cost about $40 million a year, or 13 percent more than current welfare programs.
President Clinton has apparently endorsed the plan, which needs federal welfare guarantess.
Many-child-welfare advocates have opposed the program as undercutting aid to needy children. Critics also cite a five-year limitation on job subsidies. pointing out that people who comply with the program but cannot find unsubsidized work could be let out.
John Heubscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said the plan has merits, but unless amended will worsen conditions for the poor. The conference is the public policy arm of Wisconsin's Catholic bishops.
In a letter to Donna Shalala, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Heubscher criticized the plan for its removal of all entitlements.
"Catholic social teaching holds that the poor, especially children, have a moral claim on the resources of the community needed to secure the necessities of life," he wrote, noting that Aid to Families with Dependent Children has served as the vehicle for honoring that claim.
The policy "replaces an imperfect attempt to help the poor with a calculated decision to abandon them," he wrote. "It is not welfare reform, but welfare repeal."
Huebscher also criticized the program for undervaluing parenting by requiring mothers to work 12 weeks after a child is born and for undervaluing work by providing less than minimum wage for people in community service or transitional jobs.
Noting that opponents of a higher minimum wage describe it as a "training wage" for those who lack jute experience or skills, Heubscher wrote, "It is patently unfair to argue on one hand that a minimum wage need not equal a family wage and then establish an even lower wage for parents of families on public assistance who lack work experience. …