Wisconsin hits bumps on welfare-to-work road Despite shortcomings, program manages to cut its rolls by 70 percent


MILWAUKEE -- In building a bridge from welfare to work, Wisconsin, perhaps more than any other state, has prided itself on doing things right.

It has spent heavily and pledged lavishly to give poor families the tools they need, from baby sitters and bus passes to case managers and community service jobs.

On paper, no state has done more to replace welfare checks with workers' support.

But a year after moving to the streets, Wisconsin's celebrated effort bears only an intermittent likeness to the program of customized employment services outlined in planning documents and praised from the Oval Office down. In practice, even supporters complain that inconsistent casework and unresponsive bureaucracies can make services cumbersome, if not impossible, to use.

Some administrative glitches are inevitable in an effort to move tens of thousands of low-skilled, single mothers into the work force. And despite their frustrations, many former welfare recipients have achieved a kind of back-door success by walking away from the program to find jobs on their own. But the gaps between generous theory and bumpy practice are noteworthy because Wisconsin's ethos -- less welfare, but more help -- has helped shape a national consensus on aid to the poor.

"What we see in Milwaukee isn't what we envisioned," said state Sen. Alberta Darling, one of a half-dozen Republican legislators who have balanced their enthusiasm for the program's theory with criticism of its practice. "There have been problems from the get-go, with child care and management systems. We're not demanding enough of the people delivering the services, and there are a lot of excuses on the table that I don't find acceptable."

Administrative problems were just what the state was trying to avoid when it privatized the program -- called Wisconsin Works, or W-2 -- in Milwaukee County, which accounts for 87 percent of the state's 11,000 welfare cases.

But despite the effort to import business-world efficiencies, many of those in the program describe their caseworkers as distant and distracted figures who neglect to return phone calls, rather than the partners in self-sufficiency depicted in state manuals. Many recipients find themselves bouncing between part-time or temporary jobs, suffering income gaps that planners failed to anticipate.

And the state's offer of subsidized child care, a crucial support service, has foundered on the confusion between rival agencies, one public, the others private, whose staffs and computers often fail to communicate. This year, as many as 60 percent of the child-care placements begun by one agency were invalidated by another, leaving thousands of bewildered mothers with no one to care for their children.

Albirta Glenn was left to search for a job on her own, though she lacked child care and was facing an eviction threat. When Sheila Baker was laid off, she did not look to her caseworker for help. "They don't return phone calls," she said. "I'll find a job better working with myself than working with them."

Ta-Tanisha Powell had so many problems getting her child care approved that she left her job to care for her son. Indeed, the bureaucratic foul-ups forced her back on the welfare rolls, after she had proudly worked her way free.

Despite the snags of its start-up year, Wisconsin Works enjoys broad support. It has cut the rolls by 70 percent in the last year alone, while producing no sign of the surging deprivation that some critics feared.

In a recent interview, Gov. Tommy Thompson cited the decline in the number of welfare recipients as evidence of the program's success. "I'm extremely happy," Thompson said. "We expected about 36,000 cases left on the rolls, and we're down to 10,875. It's exceeded any and all expectations."

Thompson, a three-term Republican who has staked much of his reputation on Wisconsin Works, acknowledged that "we've had some problems," particularly with child care. But he called them inevitable growing pains during "the biggest change in social welfare policy in 60 years," and he said he had moved quickly to fix them.

J. Jean Rogers, the state official with daily oversight of W-2, said the agencies were good and getting better with experience and smaller caseloads. "It's a matter of, 'Is the glass half-empty or is the glass half-full?' " she said. "I think the customized aspects of W-2 have room to grow. But I think there's 100 times more customized service than there was" under the old welfare system.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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