Bush Cabinet pick gets mixed reviews

WASHINGTON — If there's a politician who lives up to the title "compassionate conservative," it may be Tommy Thompson.

He has spent the past 13 years as governor of Wisconsin crafting creative and controversial bipartisan solutions to deep-rooted social problems.

If the Senate gives him the nod, this Bush Cabinet nominee will soon head the Department of Health and Human Services.

The department tackles such disparate issues as health care for the elderly and approval of new medicines. It includes such high-impact programs and agencies as Medicare and Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

It was his version of welfare reform that propelled Thompson to national stature. Known as Wisconsin Works, it is also one of his most hotly debated legacies.

In August 1997, just before Wisconsin Works, also known as W-2, was launched, the state had 34,948 families in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Health and Family Services.

By December 1999, the last month for which there are solid figures, the total number had shrunk to 18,800 families in the three welfare programs that took the place of AFDC. That amounts to a drop of 46 percent.

Some start counting in 1987, when Thompson became governor and welfare rolls stood at 98,000. Most of the much-touted decrease, often erroneously reported at 90 percent, happened before W-2 began.

"How do we judge success?" asked Barbara Beckert, assistant director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations. "In this case, success was [measured] by getting people off the welfare rolls, not by providing people with the training and support they needed to be in jobs that pay a living wage."

Beckert points to a substantial increase in the use of emergency shelters and food pantries. "Many of those off welfare are now dependent on the nonprofit safety net to provide for themselves and their families," she said.

Marcus White, associate director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, which includes Jewish congregations, bears out her concerns.

"What we know anecdotally and what we know from running a shelter for women with the Red Cross is that there are a lot more homeless women and homeless families than there were a few years ago," said White. He points to a women's shelter that began three years ago with 12 beds as a winter-only facility. Now it serves 35, all year long.

But White and Michael Blumenfeld, executive director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, a statewide public affairs group, also hail Badger Care, a Thompson program that extended a federal children's health insurance program to cover parents.

"We are hopeful about health insurance with him at HHS because we did something in the state, which seems to have worked," said White, noting that with the inclusion of parents, more children became insured and overall enrollment swelled.

Others see Thompson's welfare reform as a crucial paradigm shift in public policy.

"What Gov. Thompson has done in Wisconsin is break the myth that people are on welfare permanently," said Republican Jewish Coalition board member Marshall Breger, a professor of law at Washington's Columbus School of Law, at Catholic University, and a former special assistant and liaison to the Jewish community under President Reagan.

"A large majority of people on welfare can work and will work if they have the training and they need to appreciate that they're expected to work," added Breger. "There's nothing in this approach that goes against the Jewish point of view."

But Simon Greer, spokesperson for Jews United for Justice, a Washington activist group, contends that Thompson's welfare reform addressed the wrong end of the problem: moving people off the rolls.

"The problem is that there aren't enough good jobs out there, there isn't adequate training and there isn't sufficient public transportation," argues Greer. "Real welfare reform will be born of taking seriously what it takes to create jobs and linking people to these jobs."

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