My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If that is the case, then the people who are constantly surprised when welfare reform that incents work and requires responsibility actually works must be lapsing into bouts of insanity.
Twenty years ago, Gov. Tommy Thompson signed one of his signature achievements into law. Wisconsin Works (W-2) fundamentally reformed welfare and became a model for other states and the federal government.
W-2 was based on a very simple premise. If you are able to work, you must work in order to receive assistance from the taxpayers. Thompson understood that taxpayers are fundamentally decent. They are willing to lend a hand up to people and families who are down on their luck or unable to work, but every person should be expected to work as much as they are able before handing them a dollar that was taken from another working person.
W-2 was a revolutionary success. Former welfare recipients went back to work and the number of people on welfare plummeted. That is not to say that it was less expensive for taxpayers. Actually, spending on various assistance programs increased dramatically under Thompson as Wisconsin rewarded working people who still did not earn enough to get by with generous subsidies as they continued to improve their lot.
But beyond the tangible benefit to the state of former welfare recipients working and contributing to the betterment of their communities as they bettered themselves, the intangible benefits were enormous. There is a fundamental human dignity that comes through work. People take more pride in themselves and in the material things they purchase with money earned from their labor. There are innumerable stories of families who look back on the implementation of W-2 as a transformative event in their lives that opened doors to a brighter future.
Thompson’s W-2 was so impactful, the Republicans in Congress and President Bill Clinton used it as the model for the federal welfare reform they passed into law later the same year. The results mirrored those in Wisconsin. The latter half of the 1990s saw welfare, poverty and unemployment rates drop all over the nation.
The natural course of democratic government, however, is to drift toward liberalism. As the 21st century progressed, both the state of Wisconsin and the federal government gradually eased the work requirements for welfare while continuing to increase spending. The welfare rolls gradually climbed higher as it became easier for people to receive taxpayer-funded benefits with fewer restrictions or requirements. Unemployment and poverty pushed stubbornly higher in the poorest neighborhoods.
Then along came Gov. Scott Walker with the same tried and true idea. Last year, the Republican-led state Legislature and Walker reformed Wisconsin’s FoodShare program to require people who are able to work, to work. Just like Thompson, Walker’s reform coupled the work requirements with generous free training and other resources to help people get back to work.
Walker’s reform of FoodShare has been a sensational success. Anybody who remembered W-2 and its policy children could have predicted as much. In only 15 months, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reports 38 percent of people who were eligible for FoodShare benefits have found employment averaging more than 32 hours per week at an average of $11.99 per hour.
Meanwhile, another roughly 50,000 people stopped receiving FoodShare benefits because they failed to meet the work requirements despite being able to work. Those are people who obviously did not need the benefits enough to get off their rear ends and demonstrate even a modicum of effort.
The results of Walker’s most recent welfare reform was entirely predictable. Conservative welfare reform works. Every time. To think that it would not is, by definition, insanity.