Chicago's poor fleeing to Wisconsin for safer streets, greater welfare benefits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MADISON, Wis. -- In its heyday of counterculture chic a generation ago, the streets of this Wisconsin capital pulsed with protesters demanding a fair share for America's poor people and its racial minorities.

Now it is a magnet for a small but growing number of poor Chicagoans who are fleeing gang-torn neighborhoods and moving the 150 miles to Madison for better schools, safer streets -- and, some of the newcomers acknowledge -- more generous welfare benefits.

"It's not the only reason I came," said Austina Moore, 26, who moved here from Chicago last fall with her four young children, and later persuaded her mother, Hester Moore, who is also on welfare, to follow them. "But it sure helps to get $200 more a month."

She now receives $708 a month, and the cost of living is generally lower in Madison than Chicago.

Despite benefit levels that have been frozen for nearly a decade and eligibility rules that have been tightened under Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, assistance checks for the poor in Wisconsin are still about 40 percent higher than in Illinois. A family of four living in poverty in Wisconsin is entitled to $617 a month, while the same family would receive $414 in Illinois.

Some experts on poverty say migration of welfare recipients would increase sharply under the Republican plan in Congress to replace the main federal program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, with a system controlled by the states.

Under the current AFDC program, the federal government pays about half the benefits, at levels set by the states. Already the payments vary, from a maximum benefit of $120 in Mississippi, for example, to a maximum of $703 in New York. Under a block-grant system approved by the House of Representatives, the government would give the states lump sums for welfare, to be spent as they saw fit.

Many experts say this system could widen the differences in benefits because states would have more freedom to set eligibility criteria and benefit levels.

Governors are already trying to throw up fences to reduce their states' appeal to welfare migrants. In Connecticut, for example, Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican, has proposed slashing benefits and adopting the toughest eligibility requirements in the country to discourage poor people from moving there.

In Madison, the influx of poor people from Chicago is testing the city's historical liberalism. About one-quarter of the 3,300 Madison families receiving welfare are former Illinois residents.

Even Mayor Paul Soglin, who earned his liberal stripes in the anti-establishment politics of the 1960s as a Vietnam War protester, now talks of "finite limits of resources" for the poor.

"We're like a lifeboat that holds 12 people comfortably," Mr. Soglin said. "We've got about 16 in it now, and there's a dozen more waiting in the water. Since we're already in danger of going under, what can our community be expected to do?"

A vibrant economy in Wisconsin accounts for much of the migration among poor people, most of them looking for jobs. The state's unemployment rate has dipped below 4 percent while that in Illinois is 4.4 percent.

But Mr. Thompson insists that many poor people are coming to the state principally for welfare. "If you don't think so, just look at the statistics," he said.

Since Mr. Thompson took office in January 1987 and began efforts to trim the welfare rolls, the number of recipients has dropped nearly 25 percent, to about 75,000.

While the migration of poor Chicagoans has brought some problems, it has also brought redemption for many families that had once virtually given up on life.

Cindy Wells, 37, recalled hearing gunshots every day in her South Side neighborhood in Chicago, where her three young children were not allowed to play outside.

Ms. Wells, who had been on welfare when she arrived in Madison eight years ago, said a network of charitable organizations and social service agencies helped her get squared away. She was given temporary housing in the YWCA, furniture, clothes, food and transportation vouchers for the children to get to school.

"People in Madison smiled at me, shook my hand, answered my questions," she said. "For once, I could walk the streets without wondering, 'Who's going to jump me? Who's going to beat me up?' "

Within a couple of months she got a job working with poor children. And today her family is thriving. Her eldest son, Irwin Wells, 16, an honor student at James Madison High School, was recently awarded a college academic scholarship.

"I blossomed here," said Ms. Wells. "I became a whole person."

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