Wisconsin Welfare Reform: 20 Years Later
On 13 December, 1993, then-Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson signed legislation ending the welfare state programs established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt 60 years earlier. The times had changed and a well-intended program aimed at caring for widows and orphans in the throes of the Great Depression when women were excluded from the workforce had become the means to intergenerational poverty.
Incremental change would not transform the lot of America’s poor. Gov. Thompson believed that a fundamental shift from entitlement welfare to personal empowerment was the only route to social justice. While Washington remained mired in debate, Thompson joined a bipartisan team of state legislators to officially proclaim that FDR and Lyndon Johnson’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children could not be reformed; it must be replaced.
Throughout the years 1994-95, Thompson’s team designed a program that would not only be adopted in Wisconsin but serve as the tipping point in American social policy. The 1996 Federal law proposed by a Republican congress and enacted by President Clinton was inspired by the Wisconsin model. It has since been replicated internationally by Britain’s Tony Blair and David Cameron.