Lessons from a Neighbor

The past quarter-century of social engineering has been dominated by the "no questions asked" philosophy, in which public aid is given to all qualified individuals, regardless of whether recipients are making real efforts to improve their own fiscal and social condition. What is required now is a sharp break with prevailing practices – a new philosophy of public assistance. It is important that policy makers in Lansing recognize that to be effective, public assistance programs should require that society's obligation to the poor be matched by the poor's sense of obligation to society.

Wisconsin's welfare reforms deserve close attention because they are an attempt to implement this kind of thinking. Foremost among the Wisconsin initiatives is the "Learnfare" program.

For rich and poor alike, education is the key to long-run economic success. Launched in 1987, Learnfare ties the receipt of welfare benefits to a welfare family's success in keeping their children in school. In effect, it rewards families who seize the best way to escape the cycle of welfare dependency – education.

Learnfare requires all teenagers on AFDC who have not graduated from high school or earned a high school equivalency diploma to attend school regularly. A series of sanctions are designed to encourage school attendance:

If a teenager has been a dropout, has ten or more unexcused absences during a semester, or is unable to verify attendance in the previous school semester, that teen is subject to a monthly attendance requirement.

If a teen with a monthly attendance requirement has three or more full days of unexcused absences during a calendar month, AFDC benefits are reduced for one month. Dropouts are simply removed from the AFDC grant until they return to school and meet the monthly attendance requirements for one month.

Learnfare is a law with sharp teeth: under the plan, a welfare family with a habitually truant teenager loses $77 per month – about 15 percent of its grant. Teenage mothers must return to school or forfeit $200 a month – 45 percent of their grant. [4]

The program recognizes, however, that many teenagers have legitimate reasons for not attending school and it includes "good cause" reasons for non-attendance.

AFDC heads of households are notified in advance as to the reasons for any potential benefit reduction, and informed about their right to, and the process for, a fair hearing. An AFDC recipient can ask for a fair hearing within 45 days of the effective date of the agency action.

The Wisconsin plan is not without its problems. Alternative schools, where counseling and peer support often succeed at keeping former dropouts enrolled, are in short supply. The sanctioning process is so complicated, and school attendance records are so spotty, that payment mistakes are frequent. More importantly, the soundness of a policy that assumes welfare families can influence their children's behavior has been questioned by critics and supporters alike. As Jerome Brandl, principal of Milwaukee's Washington High School, said, "If he didn't listen to you before, he's probably not going to listen to you because of $100 either." [5] To get around this problem, states could adopt a Learnfare program that applies only to parents of children under age 10 (who are usually more "manageable" by parents than are teenagers) and to teenagers who are parents themselves.

Learnfare's critics also have questioned the wisdom of penalizing an entire welfare family for the failure of a child to attend school. According to Wisconsin Governor Thompson, however:

My answer is that it is the parents' responsibility to get Johnny and Suzie to school, and that they should lose some of their benefits if they don't live up to their obligation. I call the policy "tough love," and it works. The parents feel more responsible and accountable. More of the children stay in school. Hopefully, they willget a high school or vocational education, and then go on to further their training at the university or on the job. [6]

Wisconsin is also home to the most ambitious state initiative for addressing the problem of teenage pregnancy. Adopted in 1991, Wisconsin's Parental and Family Responsibility Initiative is a welfare plan that encourages marriage, responsible parenting, and keeping the nuclear family intact. It is based on the following goals and incentives:

  • Remove disincentives for young low-income parents to marry. The Wisconsin plan makes young couples with no work experience eligible for AFDC, job training, and day care – the same benefits currently available to single parents.

  • Promote schooling, work and self-sufficiency. Newly eligible two-parent families will be subject to Learnfare requirements if the mother or father has not completed high school, and will be required to participate in mandatory job training programs.

  • Reduce teenage pregnancies. Currently, AFDC grants increase with the size of the family, in effect "rewarding" new births. The new initiative limits the size of the supplemental AFDC grant when a second baby is born, and does not increase the grant if additional children are born. In addition, minor mothers would be required to live at home rather than set up their own apartment, which often leads to long-term welfare dependency.

  • Strengthen child support collection. Counties are encouraged to expedite parental establishment for all AFDC applicants. A $300 bonus is to be paid to counties for paternities established within one year for babies born to women under 20 years of age, who are the target group for this initiative.

Certainly, each and every plank of this new attempt at reform has its critics, but the failure of existing programs may be the best argument yet for giving them a try. Michigan ought to keep an eye on Wisconsin and begin implementing some of our neighboring state's good ideas right now.