REFORMER IN THE DELLS
* A postscript to Frances Fox Piven's excellent "Thompson's Easy Ride" [Feb. 26], on the elevation of Wisconsin Governor (and die-hard welfare reformer) Tommy Thompson to Health and Human Services Secretary: Wisconsin's independent Legislative Audit Bureau recently released a report showing that Employment Solutions, one of the "nonprofit" private agencies running the Milwaukee welfare program, spent more than $370,000 of Wisconsin's TANF [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] money on things like staff time and expenses trying to get welfare contracts in Arizona, and legal fees to determine whether its lobbying would jeopardize its nonprofit status and staff parties.
Employment Solutions also made "incentive payments" averaging more than $9,600 each to eighty-four staff members in 1999 (a total of more than $800,000). Its director, a former Thompson aide, got bonuses of nearly $100,000 from 1997 to '99. As has been its pattern, the state never bothered to set standards for private contractors' use of incentives--even though the bonuses came out of welfare funds, not the contractors' multimillion-dollar profits.
The response of Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development? No further investigation necessary. Meanwhile, Employment Solutions claims to be out of money to fund portions of the current TANF system, like a loan program for families in crisis situations. The state itself is running out of money to fund its childcare subsidy program. It's clear who's benefited from Thompson's welfare reform.
* I must respond to Frances Fox Piven's inaccuracies and bold misinterpretations of the Wisconsin Works (W-2) program. There is a reason former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson was easily confirmed as HHS Secretary with no opposition by Republicans or Democrats. He has made the necessary investments in people who are making the transition from welfare to work.
Piven makes a big mistake saying benefits were cut under the W-2 program, when in fact they have increased dramatically. In 1996 the state spent $141 million on childcare, transportation and other employment services for people participating in work programs under AFDC. In 2001 the state is budgeted to spend well over $350 million.
Is it true that the amount spent on cash benefits has been reduced? Certainly. That is the whole premise behind W-2, to help people make the transition from cash assistance to independence while providing them with the necessary supportive services to make that change. These investments in supportive services have paid off. A recent study indicates that 76 percent of people who left welfare since the inception of W-2 did so because they got a job or had other income that allowed them to leave public assistance. The department was also able to obtain the earnings for just over 13,000 of those 22,000 families and determined that 69 percent were receiving between $34,000 and $38,000 in income and benefits, based on monthly, annualized earnings.
All indications are that children in Wisconsin are better off since W-2 began. Infant mortality rates have dropped and the rate of child abuse and neglect has decreased, along with juvenile crime rates and domestic abuse incidents. And in contrast to Piven's statement, foster care placements have remained stable since W-2 was implemented. She also fails to point out that Wisconsin consistently ranks among the top ten states for having the lowest number of children living in poverty.
W-2 is all about hope--hope for the future and hope for a better life. And it has succeeded beyond even the most optimistic expectations.
JENNIFER REINERT Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development
New York City
* Fuzzy math and funny numbers. Jennifer Reinert, secretary of the Wisconsin department that runs TANF, claims that families formerly on welfare in that state now earn $34,000 to $38,000 a year. …