Wisconsin provides follow-up data on ex-welfare clients; Report gives ammunition to critics, supporters of radical state program


Though Wisconsin's radical welfare experiment has drawn more interest than the programs of other states, until this week there was no information on what was happening to the droves of people leaving the rolls.

Now state officials have released information on everything from the number of former welfare recipients with access to a car (54 percent) to the number who say they have been forced to abandon their children (5 percent).

The state's welfare program, Wisconsin Works or "W-2," which began in October 1997, is both stringent and generous, at least on paper. Everyone on the rolls is required to work, with virtually no exceptions. But the state has created thousands of community service jobs and pledged support services, such as child care, to all who need them.

The good news is that the percentage of former recipients who found jobs has remained high, even as the welfare exodus reached deeper and deeper into the caseload. Sixty-two percent of the former recipients were working at the time of the survey, and 83 percent had worked sometime in recent months.

Larry Mead, a welfare expert at New York University, went so far as to argue that "these work levels represent the greatest achievement in anti-poverty policy since the Great Society" programs created in the 1960s.

The bad news is that economic difficulties remained common and for some recipients grew worse.

Despite the state's booming economy, sizable minorities reported problems paying for such basics as utilities (47 percent), housing (37 percent) and food (32 percent). After leaving welfare, families grew almost 50 percent more likely to experience an inability to buy groceries.

"This supports the view of advocates who say the program has serious problems," said Pamela Fendt, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Though subject to widely varying interpretation, the study is likely to attract much attention.

More than a dozen states have done similar studies, but Wisconsin's began after about 75 percent of the caseload -- presumably those most employable -- had already left the rolls. Therefore, it gives the first glimpse of how the nation's least job-ready recipients may ultimately fare.

Though Wisconsin is dealing with a more troubled portion of the caseload, the percentage of "leavers" finding work remained comparable to other states.

"We're dealing with those at the bottom of the employability ladder, yet our work levels are on par with states that have reformed much less radically," said J. Jean Rogers, who runs the Wisconsin welfare program.

"That implies either that we underestimated the employability of our most disadvantaged clients or that Wisconsin's done a good job of promoting and sustaining work."

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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