- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

As the conservative, pro-life Republican governor of the generally liberal state of Wisconsin for the past 14 years, Tommy Thompson has established himself as one of the nation's most creative politicians. Repeatedly, Mr. Thompson has succeeded in first developing and then implementing Wisconsin-based, innovative, conservative solutions to some of the nation's most difficult social problems. Whether the issue has been welfare reform, the education of impoverished inner-city children, the provision of health insurance for poor children and their parents or the long-term care of the elderly, Mr. Thompson has been in the political forefront offering new approaches, including school vouchers for poor children and work-based welfare reform, to some of the most intractable problems.

Indeed, many of the welfare-reform policies Mr. Thompson adopted in Wisconsin over the years became the model for the initial installment of the truly bona fide welfare reform legislation Congress passed and President Clinton signed in 1996. Moreover, contrary to numerous predictions by the usual liberal suspects that social disaster would inevitably result from that bill, welfare reform has in fact been a success nationwide. Nominated this week by President-elect George W. Bush to be the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Mr. Thompson will soon try to work his social-welfare magic in the nation's capital, which he has understandably dubbed "Disneyland East."

Welfare reform has been Mr. Thompson's signature issue, but the wonder is that others didn't try it sooner. Under the long-discredited traditional approach to welfare policy that permitted welfare assistance to become essentially a lifetime entitlement for which nothing was expected in return, it was hardly surprising that the creation of nearly 18 million jobs in the United States from 1982 through 1989 failed to prevent the nation's welfare caseload from increasing by more than 10 percent. Mr. Thompson decided to limit the incentive to remain on welfare. He required qualifying recipients to earn their benefits by working, and Wisconsin's welfare caseload plunged from 98,000 in 1987 to fewer than 7,000 today, representing a decline of 93 percent. Nationally, where the working requirements are not yet nearly as stringent as in Wisconsin, the welfare caseload has declined by roughly 50 percent from its 1994 peak. Of course, the most pronounced reduction in the nation has occurred since the 1996 welfare reform law was passed.

Notwithstanding predictions to the contrary from liberal critics, the national poverty rate actually declined in 2000 to its lowest rate in 20 years. Under Mr. Thompson, Wisconsin has reduced its child poverty rate by half to one of the lowest rates in the country. The plunging Wisconsin welfare caseload and poverty rate have permitted the state to increase its assistance to the truly needy in the form of child care, transportation and health insurance.

President Clinton, readers may recall, signed the 1996 welfare-reform bill only under duress; his political adviser Dick Morris convinced him it was in his political interest to do so. Imagine then the possibilities for someone like Mr. Thompson, who actually believes in the merits of welfare reform. Imagine then the possibilities for those trapped on welfare who might otherwise have been left behind.

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