Wis. marks 10th anniversary of innovative welfare reform program
Debate continues over effectiveness of work plan
MILWAUKEE -- Susan Gramza credits Wisconsin's groundbreaking welfare reform program with helping her land a job as a housekeeping manager, support her four children, and put away money, too. But another mother, Veronica Sanford, got fired from her job for missing work and washed out of the program.
Their stories reflect the debate over the effectiveness of Wisconsin Works, or W-2, which turns 10 this year.
W-2 requires mothers to work or get job training in exchange for a check and child care. It replaced the conventional welfare program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, which had been around since the 1930s.
Then-Governor Tommy Thompson, who helped start W-2 in 1997 after nearly a decade of experimentation, is now seeking the Republican presidential nomination and counts the program among his proudest accomplishments, since it helped lay the groundwork for the 1996 federal reform of welfare.
"It has been successful at getting people off of welfare and into the workplace, and that, in and of itself, is the right thing," said Thompson, who calls himself "the father of welfare reform."
But studies of W-2 give it mixed reviews.
Under the program, participants are paid up to $673 a month for up to 30 hours a week in a community service job and up to 10 hours a week in education or training. They also may receive food stamps or medical assistance and generally have a five-year limit on aid.
Proponents of the program point to the way it has reduced the welfare rolls. When W-2 began in full in 1997, 34,491 families received cash assistance. This past March, it was 6,047 families.
Detractors point to a 2005 state audit that found that only about 20 percent of participants earned more than the poverty level in the year after they left. The audit also learned that mismanagement led to $1.3 million in overpayments to some parents.
Since Democratic Governor Jim Doyle took office in 2003, the state has created an ombudsman to oversee W-2 in Milwaukee, which was beset by troubles that included a kickback scheme that led to federal convictions for a former state lawmaker and a contractor.
The state also withholds 20 percent of funds from some agencies until they meet performance standards.
Gramza, 29, went to W-2 in 2006 and got a hotel housekeeping job making $6.50 an hour. She now makes $10 an hour as a manager and budgets her money.
"Without their help I wouldn't have got this far," she said.
Sanford, 29, said she was told by a W-2 agency in 2005 that she could get a job on her own and did not need the program's help. But she said she couldn't support her children, so she left the three youngsters at a coin laundry in hopes they would be put in foster care. She said she called police to report some abandoned children and watched until officers showed up. She went to jail for seven days, she said.
"If they had only given me W-2, I would have been able to regain balance," she said.
She later found a job through W-2 in February but showed up late after having problems with arranging state-aided child care. Sanford, who cannot afford a car, said frigid temperatures kept her home the next day and she was fired. The W-2 agency said it couldn't help her because she squandered her opportunity, she said.
"They don't give you what you need, they give you what they want to give you," she said.