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Welfare Reform Is Already a Reality in Wisconsin

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Fond du Lac, Wis.

At a Mobil gasoline-station and minimart just off U.S. Highway 41 here, 21-year-old Antoinette Barton is at the cash register ringing up customers who stop in for gasoline, lottery tickets, or cigarettes. The bell on the door chimes repeatedly as a stream of people walk in and line up at the counter.

She is working here on a clear October morning as part of an experimental welfare program that requires recipients to punch a time clock to get a government check.

But Ms. Barton, who recently moved to this quiet community at the foot of Lake Winnebago with her fianc‚ and four children, says she doesn't mind working for her $400 monthly welfare check.

And though women with children under age 1 also are exempt from the work obligations, Ms. Barton, who has a 4-month-old daughter, was anxious to start a daily work routine.

Setting the Stage

Ms. Barton says the Work Not Welfare program helps her get child care and medical care for her children while she prepares for her high-school-equivalency exam. Ms. Barton plans to go on to nursing school, work the night shift at the Mobil station, and quit the welfare ranks for good.

"There are so many people on welfare who could do better for themselves," she says as she watches customers drive away from the station. "Welfare is giving me a start."

As Congress inches toward final passage of a welfare-reform bill that would hand over the reins to the states to steer their own programs, some states are hustling to enact systems that will work for them. Just last week, Michigan Gov. John Engler proposed a raft of changes to that state's welfare program. The governor's plan would require women with children older than 6 weeks to work or risk losing benefits, as well as revoke the driver's licenses of fathers who don't make child-support payments. But, unlike Michigan, many states are barely beginning to sketch the outlines of their welfare-reform plans.

And many of them are studying this Wisconsin town nestled amid dairy farms where welfare reform is already a reality.

In 1993, the federal government approved the waiver Wisconsin needed for its Work Not Welfare project. It was launched at the beginning of this year in Fond du Lac County, near the state's border with Lake Michigan, and on the opposite end of the state in Pierce County.

Unlike the rest of the state, which still operates under the rules of the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, residents of these two counties must be working or be in a job-training program to be eligible for cash payments, child care, and medical benefits. And if they are younger than 18, they must attend school or risk having their cash payments reduced. Perhaps the most politically sensitive element of this experimental plan is the time limit: After two years, participants lose eligibility.

No one here has had to face that deadline yet, but state officials who run the 11-month-old program say they are already seeing success in their efforts to move people into the workforce.

"We give them incentives or sticks and they get off," said Roger W. Kautz, the state coordinator for the Fond du Lac program. Since the program's implementation, the welfare caseload in the county has dropped from 780 to 350--a figure that translates into $150,000 in savings every month, according to county estimates.

Mr. Kautz attributes the plunging numbers to two factors: People are either getting jobs or they find the new restrictions too burdensome and just don't sign up.

Some people on welfare here have complained that the new system is shortsighted when it comes to education. Work Not Welfare does not allow people to pursue a college degree in exchange for benefits. Critics argue that this policy keeps people on welfare from securing better-paying jobs that could keep them off public assistance for good.

But the program's administrators see things differently.

"The goal is self-sufficiency, not self-sufficiency at $15 dollars an hour or self-sufficiency with a college education," Mr. Kautz said. "When you accept a welfare check, it's not a gift--it's a social contract."

Beyond Fond du Lac

This social contract may soon extend well beyond Fond du Lac and Pierce counties. The Wisconsin legislature is expected to vote in January on a bill backed by Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson that would overhaul the state's entire welfare system.

The plan is well-timed. Supporters of the initiative are positioning themselves to have a new state-run system ready to go if federal welfare-reform legislation is enacted this year--which appears likely.

Wisconsin Works, or "W2," is modeled on the Fond du Lac program, but it is not a carbon copy. Work Not Welfare tinkers with the existing system by experimenting in selected areas; W2 would replace it completely.

One big difference is that while Work Not Welfare cuts off benefits after two years and then allows recipients to reapply for benefits after they've been off welfare for three years, W2 has a five-year lifetime limit.

Many observers are concerned that what works in Fond du Lac--one of the richest counties in Wisconsin--would not work statewide. The reforms are based on the idea that there are sufficient jobs in the private sector to sustain the demand for work.

The state's unemployment rate is 3.5 percent, 2 points below the national average.

Of the more than 58,000 adults and 141,000 children in Wisconsin who receive welfare benefits, more than half live in Milwaukee County, where there is less economic development than in other regions, says August Cibarich, a labor-market economist for the state labor department.

In the event of a recession, some analysts warn that Wisconsin Works could find itself out of business. But W2's architects say that if jobs became scarce, people would be channeled into community service or transitional employment until something else opened up.

By giving welfare recipients a leg up the employment ladder into temporary jobs, W2 would teach the state's most disenfranchised residents needed skills and a better work ethic, supporters say.

"W2 is going to break the cycle of dependency because it will help children see and learn the value of work," said state Sen. Carol Buettner, a Republican who represents Fond du Lac and a leading sponsor of W2. "Families will learn that they can't simply receive a check in the mail."

Children at Risk?

But many women who have been speaking out at rallies and public hearings across the state in recent weeks say the changes would have a devastating effect on children and families.

In a packed hearing room in the state Capitol in Madison last month, 26-year-old Bonita Freeman, a mother who receives welfare benefits, was testifying before a Senate panel as her 3-year-old daughter, Asha, squirmed nearby.

Ms. Freeman was talking about W2's "family cap" provision, which would cut off additional funds to women who had more children while on welfare.

"What I get now is nothing, and I'm already struggling with these five," said Ms. Freeman, who is pregnant with her sixth child. Freezing her welfare check wouldn't help matters, she said, and would only make buying food, medicine, and diapers for her children more difficult.

Ms. Freeman said she wants to go back to college so she will not be dependent on welfare. But W2 would not provide child-care services for recipients who wanted to pursue a college degree.

"Most of us are doing things to get off the system," but W2 would hinder those efforts, she said.

Ms. Freeman was joined by several other mothers who receive welfare benefits, some with babies in tow. They voiced their objections to W2's provision to prohibit cash payments to unmarried mothers younger than 18.

"I was a teenage mother, and I know how hard it is to overcome normal obstacles," said Ramona Rudd, a 22-year-old from Milwaukee who is pregnant with her third child. "A lot of reasons teen pregnancy happens is because the home life isn't an ideal situation," and cutting off funds to adolescents would accomplish nothing, she told the senators.

However, state officials stress that the proposed policy is not intended to penalize teenagers, but to discourage them from becoming pregnant.

After the hearing, Lynn Crawford, who has been on and off welfare for nine years, sat in her apartment living room with her four children and two grandchildren. She said she was afraid the law would encourage young women to have abortions.

"It's heartbreaking and wrong to kill your child because you can't support it," said Ms. Crawford, 47.

She also said that any kind of welfare reform is impossible without adequate enforcement of child-support measures--something she knows about firsthand."It took three years to get child support from their father, and when I did it was $35 a month for four kids," she said. Wisconsin is considered to be one of the most aggressive states in collecting support from delinquent fathers, but stories like Ms. Crawford's are common.

Ms. Crawford leafed through a Bible on her kitchen table, pointing out a passage she wished she had read to the panel of senators: "Woe to those who make unjust laws ... robbing the fatherless," it reads. "What will you do on the day of reckoning?"

Hope for the Future

But supporters of Wisconsin's welfare-reform efforts are just as passionate about their cause. They say that society, by imposing stricter rules for welfare, is not turning its back on children, but giving them a chance to end the dependency on government that can sap their self-esteem.

Dale Both, an economic-support specialist for the welfare program in Fond du Lac, said she loves to come to work each day to get people excited about their opportunities. In her file drawer bulging with client folders she sees only one person who is unemployable.

That assessment is what Edward Schilling, the director of social services for Fond du Lac County, likes to hear. Self-sufficiency, he said, begins with that first dip into the job pool.

"Clients may enter the job market as a dishwasher, but they may exit as a physicist," Mr. Schilling said. "You have to start somewhere."

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