MADISON, WIS. — Madison, Wis. -- AS THE SENATE takes up the issue of welfare reform, Gov. Tommy Thompson has a blunt message for the lawmakers back in Washington: "The first thing I'm going to say is something that most people don't really want to hear, and that is, it costs more to change the system."
In the long run, of course, putting welfare recipients to work should save money. But not any time soon. Job training, health benefits, child care, transportation -- they're all necessary, expensive and unpopular. This lesson from Wisconsin, admits John Gard, one of Mr. Thompson's top legislative lieutenants, "is tough for some people to get used to."
But it's worth hearing. Mr. Thompson -- who ended his brief flirtation with a Republican presidential bid last week -- has spent eight years trying new things, making new mistakes, figuring out what works -- and what doesn't. And something is working: The welfare caseload has dropped 22 percent since he took office.
Other factors play a role, including the state's booming economy. Moreover, the Wisconsin model would be hard to apply in large states with huge concentrations of overcrowded, undereducated people. Still, this is probably the best welfare laboratory in the country right now, and it's not just conservatives who can learn something here. The lesson for liberals is equally frank and unsettling: There's no such thing as a dead-end job.
According to the welfare rights gospel, much-derided but widely available "burger flipping" jobs are not worth taking. Pay is low, advancement limited, benefits non-existent. But that canon does welfare recipients a profound disservice. Ground-level experience teaches that the single biggest obstacle to work is not lack of skills, but lack of discipline. "Most people do want to work," says Mr. Thompson, "but they don't know how." And the only way to learn good work habits is through practice -- getting out of bed, showing up on time, finishing a job. And then coming back the next day.
Michael Wiseman, a University of Wisconsin professor who has studied welfare closely, comes to this conclusion: "The first step is to find a job, any job, even if it's a low-wage job. That gets things started. And then that job is really the ticket for getting into the next training program and to think about moving up. It breaks the cycle of staying home and being disconnected."
The consensus is jelling in Washington to force able-bodied recipients off welfare and into a job within two years. For the past six months, that concept has been tried in two Wisconsin counties. And while results are still tentative, one thing is clear: Just sending welfare recipients to work is not enough. Many lack the resilience or resources to cope with calamity. If the car breaks down and/or a baby-sitter fails to show up, their resolve dissolves. Instead of taking a bus, they take a day off.
Edward Schilling, who heads the experiment in Fond du Lac County, tells of a local company that needed welders quickly. A training program was set up through the local high school and a number of welfare recipients were recruited for the classes. But the county miscalculated. Within a week or two, the company was complaining: Your folks aren't showing up. Only intensive counseling -- knocking on doors every morning -- got the would-be welders to class. Says Mr. Schilling: "It takes that kind of hands-on work, that kind of repetition, that kind of reinforcement on a daily basis, if necessary, to get people into the habit that you work eight hours a day, five days a week. That's what you normally do, that's a normal lifestyle."
Not everybody thinks Wisconsin's lessons are useful. State Sen. Gwendolynne Moore, once a welfare mother herself, warns against the two-years-and-out idea: "They're very dangerous experiments because you're dealing with people's lives, and there is absolutely no evidence at this point that any of these initiatives work in the real world."
But the most dangerous course is to do nothing. Welfare must change, and the extremists on both sides should not be allowed to dominate the debate. The Wisconsin experience teaches two hard truths: To break the cycle of dependency, work is necessary, but it is also expensive. The British philosopher Thomas Carlyle once said, "All work, even cotton spinning, is noble." So is burger flipping. At least it's a start. The only "dead-end job" is going to the mailbox to collect a welfare check.
Cokie Roberts is a commentator for ABC News. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.