Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Sink-or-Swim Welfare Reform

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Sink-or-Swim Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

There are at least a couple of ways to teach nonswimmers to swim. You can buoy them up on inflatable doodads and hope it will make them feel secure enough to try swimming on their own. (Meanwhile, you can shout instructions and encouragement.) A good number of people have learned to swim that way. Many others are still clinging to the doodads months and years later - unable or unwilling to let go.

Or you can show them what swimming is basically about and then throw them into the water. Some people learn to swim that way, too. Others have to be rescued, and a few, no doubt, drown.

Wisconsin has tried to combine the best of the two approaches - not, of course, to teach swimming, but as an attempt at welfare reform.

"Wisconsin Works" - or "W-2," as Gov. Tommy Thompson calls his controversial new program - tries to solve the problem of how to get people off welfare by the radical expedient of never putting them on in the first place. People who apply for financial assistance are required to work in exchange for their benefits. Private-sector work if it is available, public sector work if it isn't, and training where it is needed.

The plan avoids some of the frustrations of earlier attempts at radical reform. For instance, it avoids the work-or-training loophole that has had some welfare recipients in near-permanent training classes without ever graduating to a job. Wisconsin will pay for training - and also subsidize child care and other costs - but not instead of work. (You get a little flotation help, but you've got to kick and paddle for yourself.)

And the public-sector jobs the state provides as a last resort pay less than their private-sector counterparts - the idea being to avoid transforming public work into the equivalent of permanent water wings.

Wisconsin also avoids one of the traps of President Bill Clinton's two-years-and-out proposal - a proposal I might have found sensible if I hadn't remembered a housing program the District of Columbia tried some 30 years ago.

The city, which at the time had a waiting list of thousands of families for public housing, came up with the idea of emergency temporary shelter for families in particularly dire straits - victims of fires or evictions, for instance. …

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