As one of the first governors to tackle welfare reform—several years before the federal government—Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin has certainly changed “the way we think about social programs in the United States,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a fellow Republican.
But will Mr. Thompson, selected to be the secretary of health and human services in the incoming Bush administration, be good for children’s programs? Considering his performance in Wisconsin on such issues as child care, health care, and other supports for low-income working families, advocates for children’s programs are cautiously optimistic.
Tommy G. Thompson
|Position: Governor of Wisconsin, 1987 to present.|
|Education: B.S., 1963, and J.D., 1966, University of Wisconsin- Madison.|
| Other experience: |
|Personal: Married to Sue Ann Thompson, with three adult children.|
“There are things in his record that indicate that he knows it’s not enough to throw people off welfare; you also have to move people out of poverty,” said Julian Palmer, a spokesman for the National Center for Children in Poverty, based in New York City. “I think Governor Thompson has recognized that the transition from welfare to work takes resources.”
Wisconsin, for example, is one of 10 states to have an earned-income tax credit that poor families can use in addition to the federal credit.
Mr. Palmer added that in addition to a dramatic decline in the state’s welfare caseload—by roughly 90 percent—the child-poverty rate in Wisconsin has also dropped, from 19 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 1998. “The goal ought to be moving those things in tandem,” Mr. Palmer said.
Gov. Thompson, who is now midway though his fourth term, has also made health insurance for low-income families a priority.
In addition to participating in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Wisconsin received a waiver in 1999 from the federal government that allows it to extend Medicaid coverage to the parents of children who are eligible for the CHIP program, which Congress passed in 1997. The federal program was designed to provide health coverage to children who don’t qualify for Medicaid—the federal health-insurance system for the poor—but who live in families that don’t have insurance from their employers.
As of November, more than 77,000 people were being served through Wisconsin’s combined approach, which the state calls BadgerCare.
If Mr. Thompson is confirmed by the Senate as the next HHS secretary, it’s possible that he will focus more attention on what states can do to expand health coverage to both children and parents, said Joan Henneberry, the director of health policy at the National Governors’ Association.
Under the state’s welfare reform program, Wisconsin Works—also known as W-2—parents who are fulfilling a work requirement are guaranteed child- care assistance. Child-care subsidies are also available to working-poor families in an effort to keep them off welfare.
Since Mr. Thompson was first elected governor in 1986, the child-care budget in the state has grown from $12 million to more than $250 million a year, said Dave B. Edie, the director of the Wisconsin Office of Child Care.
Now, child- care advocates are hoping that, if he takes the helm of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Mr. Thompson will begin to shift more attention to the quality of care children receive while their parents are working.
“We’ve made progress in child care as a work support,” said Joan Lombardi, who served as the director of the child-care bureau, part of HHS, under the Clinton administration. “Now, it’s time to see child care as an opportunity for education.”
In Wisconsin, Mr. Thompson has taken steps in that direction by launching a new initiative to create model early-childhood programs, called Early Childhood Excellence Centers, for low-income children, Mr. Edie said.
Ms. Lombardi, who now directs a nonprofit advocacy group in Alexandria, Va., called the Children’s Project, said she would also like to see Mr. Thompson focus more attention on the quality of care for infants and toddlers, whether they are being cared for by family members or child-care providers. “I don’t think better baby care means you put them in centers,” she said.
While many states have been working to make preschool programs more widely available to 3- and 4-year-olds, studies have shown that infant and toddler care is often of the poorest quality.
It is also possible, said Darcy Olsen, the director of education and child policy at the Washington-based Cato Institute, that Mr. Thompson would resurrect the idea of providing financial incentives, such as tax credits, to parents who stay home to care for their young children.
The idea was supported by former Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., when he chaired the House Education and Workforce Committee before his retirement this month, as well as other Republicans.
And it would not be a surprise if such a proposal came from Mr. Thompson, who has stressed the idea of giving parents more choice as part of his education policy for K-12 schools. It is his state that is the site of the closely watched Milwaukee voucher program, which gives low-income parents tuition aid to send their children to the private or public schools of their choice.
Plans for Head Start
It is likely that one of the issues on Mr. Thompson’s plate if he does become secretary will be President-elect Bush’s proposal, made during his election campaign, to move Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor children, out of the Department of HHS and into the Department of Education.
Mr. Bush’s goal is to turn the program into more of an early reading program.
But many supporters of Head Start, which just received a $933 million increase in the 2001 federal budget, are opposed to the idea because they worry that the other services now provided by the program, such as health care and nutrition, would suffer.
“It’s great to have that focus on reading, as long as we don’t do something that doesn’t make sense in terms of the child’s development,” said Faith Wohl, the executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign in New York City.
Townley Mailler, the director of government affairs for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association, said she was encouraged by Mr. Thompson’s growing emphasis on quality and by the fact that both the governor’s mother and wife were schoolteachers.
But she’s reserving judgment on whether he’s the best choice for HHS secretary until she sees what happens to the idea of moving Head Start into the Education Department, a move that could anger some people.
“I can see him supporting that, but it’s going to be fought out in Congress,” Ms. Mailler said. “I think it’s a wait-and-see.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Child Advocates Appraise HHS Nominee Thompson