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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher December 11, 2011

Did GOP U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Thompson end welfare in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin Republican Tommy Thompson made a sweeping statement in announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate on Dec. 1, 2011, saying that while he served as the state’s governor, "we ended welfare."

As in, completely?

Thompson, during his brief run for president in 2007, called himself the "father of welfare reform." With experts agreeing he was a national leader in that area, Thompson’s claim earned a True from our colleagues at PolitiFact National. Reforms similar to those made in Wisconsin were later adopted at the federal level under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who had previously made welfare changes as governor of Arkansas.

But reforming welfare isn’t the same as ending it.

As Thompson tries to burnish his conservative credentials against two other candidates for the GOP nomination in 2012, let’s step back in time.

Before becoming President George W. Bush’s health and human services secretary in 2001, Thompson served for 14 years as Wisconsin’s governor. One of his signature accomplishments was "Wisconsin Works -- W2," a measure he signed in to law in 1996.

Thompson’s Senate campaign spokesman, Darrin Schmitz, cited W-2 as the primary evidence to back Thompson’s claim.

A booklet on W-2 produced by the Thompson administration at the time hailed the law as "the end of welfare," saying it eliminated "automatic welfare checks" provided by the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

For decades, AFDC’s cash entitlement to low-income families, which sometimes lasted for many years, was synonymous with "welfare" in America.

AFDC included virtually no work requirements, but W-2 not only requires recipients to work, or engage in work-related activity such as training, it puts a five-year limit on how long they can be in the program.

There are several types of W-2 assistance. Some recipients, for example, work in private-sector "trial jobs" that pay at least minimum wage and are intended to become permanent, while others earn up to $673 per month working in community service jobs. In October 2011, the number of people in W-2, which is budgeted to cost $626 million in state and federal funds in 2010-2011, was nearly 16,000 -- up 15 percent from a year earlier.

So, Thompson replaced the AFDC entitlement with the work-required W-2 -- but does that mean he ended welfare, period?

The definition of welfare is key.

Thompson "had a leading role in ending welfare as we previously knew it," said Jon Peacock, research director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, a liberal think tank. "Whether he eliminated welfare altogether is a matter of semantics.  If by welfare, one means an entitlement program that doesn’t require work, then I think one can say that (Thompson) played a leading role in the effort to eliminate welfare.  If one uses a more expansive definition, equating welfare with public assistance generally or with any form of cash assistance, then it’s not accurate to say it was eliminated."  

New York University professor of politics Lawrence Mead, who has done a number of studies on W-2, agreed.

"If welfare means the old system, then he’s right, he did indeed abolish it," Mead said of Thompson, noting Wisconsin was the first state to create an "all-work-based" aid system.

But "it’s not true in a more literal sense," Mead said, because other forms of welfare -- such as food stamps -- still exist.

For instance, in October 2011, more than 800,000 low-income Wisconsin adults and children participated in FoodShare, Wisconsin’s version of what used to be known as the food stamps program.

Moreover, despite its strict work requirements, W-2 arguably has its own welfare components. For example, the custodial parent of an infant who is 12 weeks old or less receives $673 per month and is not required to work. That is, to be sure, a small group and a limited time.

Our conclusion

Thompson declared that as governor, "we ended welfare." His W-2 program didn’t eliminate every program that might be considered a handout. But it did end the entitlement program most commonly known as welfare, replacing it with one that requires nearly all recipients to work for their benefits.

We rate Thompson’s statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

Tommy Thompson Senate candidacy announcement video, Dec. 1, 2011

Email interview, Tommy Thompson campaign spokesman Darrin Schmitz, Dec. 5, 2011

Email interview, Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley, Dec. 6, 2011

Email interview, Wisconsin Department of Children and Family Services spokeswoman Sara Buschman, Dec. 7, 2011, "Thompson was a leader in welfare reform," June 1, 2007

Tommy Thompson for President 2008 Facebook page

New York University professor of politics Lawrence Mead,"Statecraft: The politics of welfare reform in Wisconsin," February 1999

Interview, New York University professor of politics Lawrence Mead, Dec. 6, 2011

Wisconsin Historical Society, "W-2 -- Wisconsin Works"

Wisconsin Historical Society, "Tommy Thompson and the conservative revolution"

Wisconsin Department of Health Services, "FoodShare Wisconsin program at a glance -- October 2011"

Wisconsin Department of Children and Family Services, "Wisconsin Works (W-2) critical indicators," October 2011

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "A brief history of the AFDC program"

Interview and email interview, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families research director Jon Peacock, Dec. 5 and 6, 2011

National Journal, "Thompson announces Senate plans," Sept. 19, 2011

Governing, "Taking stock," February 2010

Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, "Wisconsin Works (W-2) and other economic support programs," January 2011

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Did GOP U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Thompson end welfare in Wisconsin?

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