For years, hundreds of impoverished families across America found it impossible to break the perpetual cycle of poverty. Those in need of public assistance applied to the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program to receive benefits. However, AFDC was not a viable path to self-sufficiency. Eligibility was based almost solely on financial status, and the program did nothing to assess a family's access to community resources or the parents' ability to become employed. Under AFDC, many participants were not required to work, or were enrolled in training programs that never led to employment. Without a job, AFDC recipients found themselves isolated from both the workforce and from society as a whole.
In 1996, Wisconsin became the first state to pass an approved welfare reform plan that effectively removed the existing roadblocks to self-sufficiency by introducing Wisconsin Works. Instead of being overseen by the public welfare department, the program is run by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, indicating the shift in the institutional culture of poverty alleviation from entitlements of cash assistance to employment support services. Under the system, local government has been granted greater authority and responsibility, encouraging innovations at the local level that are then shared throughout the State. Across Wisconsin, welfare offices were replaced with job centers open to the general public, and the role of the case worker was redefined to help participants assess their needs and identify employment goals.
Each county in Wisconsin now has at least one job center, which offers a range of services to help clients achieve steady employment. Opportunities for academic improvement include computerized training for General Educational Development (GED), High School Equivalency Certificate (HSE), and skills upgrading in over 150 subject areas. The Career Development Centers utilize self-directed assessment software, provide career counselors who are available for individualized assessments, and run a variety of workshops. Job centers also contain resource rooms with a library, resume writing help, and communications technology essential to perform a successful job search. Additionally, many job centers have developed partnerships so that they can offer supplementary services, such as unemployment compensation, emergency food, medical assistance, child care, and legal aid.
All Wisconsin residents who qualify for cash assistance are required to become involved in Wisconsin Works activities, and failure to meet these requirements results in reduction or termination of benefits. Those who are facing barriers to employment, such as health problems or no employment history, are provided with intensive management services in the W-2 Transition program. Community service jobs require 40 hours per week of participation, and incorporate several training programs. The trial job period requires 160 full-time working hours per month, and participants earn a regular wage with a subsidy paid to the employer. The ultimate goal is for all participants to achieve unsubsidized employment following the series of training programs so that they are entirely self-sufficient.
Instead of simply monitoring the process, Wisconsin Works focuses on tracking outcomes. From September 1997 to January 1999, the welfare recipient caseload in Wisconsin dropped dramatically from 34,491 to 12,555. Although the nation's public assistance rolls declined by only 32 percent from August 1996 to July 1998, Wisconsin's public assistance rolls decline by an astounding 71 percent over the same time period. Since the program's implementation, nearly 24,000 adult recipients have entered the workforce with an average hourly wage of $7.42. Of the leavers, 83 percent were employed within a year of exiting public assistance. The results strongly indicate that Wisconsin Works is giving parents the tools they need to raise children in an environment that reinforces a new cycle of intergenerational self-sufficiency.