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Welfare reformer to lead national policy

Tommy Thompson, in his 14 years as Wisconsin's governor, promised change and has cut the state's welfare rolls 83 percent.

Tommy Thompson led Wisconsin on the nation's boldest _ and some say riskiest _ welfare experiment, dramatically driving down caseloads by insisting everyone should work, and building a national reputation on one of the nation's hottest but thorniest issues.

Now the 14-year effort has landed the Republican governor as President-elect Bush's choice for secretary of health and human services, where he is poised to oversee national welfare policy.

"For 10 years he's been a leader in welfare policy," said Judy Gearon, president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a leading welfare research firm. "He's an out-of-the-box thinker."

More than any other state, Thompson's Wisconsin fundamentally changed the way government helps its poorest citizens _ writing and strictly enforcing rules that make it tough to qualify for and keep welfare.

And while some Republicans talked about welfare reform as a way to save tax dollars, Thompson emphasized the need to spend more to eliminate barriers to single moms coming off the rolls. That meant more for child care, health coverage and even transportation.

Wisconsin is not alone. Nationwide, there's been a sea of change in welfare policy. Education, training and a guarantee that the poorest Americans get at least a small government check have been replaced with work requirements and a limit on how long anyone stays on the rolls.

But Wisconsin experimented earlier, imposed stricter rules and saw its welfare caseloads fall faster than almost anyone thought possible.

It has advocates for the poor worried. They report anecdotal evidence of increased homelessness and demand at food pantries and worry about what will happen when the economy sours. And they fear some people have such entrenched problems _ mental illness, a sick relative, drug addiction _ they may never be able to support themselves.

"There really is no safety net in place for those people who end up failing in the work world," said Bob Jacobson of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

But they don't dispute the numbers. When Thompson first ran for governor in 1986 _ campaigning on welfare _ there were more than 98,000 families on assistance. Now there's just over 16,000, a drop of 83 percent.

Thompson's campaign message in 1986 was simple _ Wisconsin had become a "welfare magnet" with benefits so high it was attracting poor from other states.

His ideas got bolder after he won, as he embarked on a series of small-scale experiments that began eating away at the notion of welfare as entitlement.

"Learnfare" reduced checks of parents whose children skipped school. "Children First" required fathers to participate in a work program if they failed to pay child support. "Bridefare" tried to get teen parents to marry, paying them extra if they tied the knot.

A two-tier payment system discouraged those "welfare magnets" by paying new residents what they would have gotten in their former states.

And he forced county governments to compete with private corporations to run welfare programs.

"Every year he would roll out a new imaginative approach," said Jason Turner, Thompson's top welfare policy aide in the mid 1990s. "They built on one another, one change after the next."

The caseloads began dropping, though analysis found the booming economy deserved virtually all of the credit, said John Pawasarat of the University of Wisconsin, who has studied the state's welfare reforms.