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Chapter Summary

Katz, Michael (2001). Governors as Welfare Reformers, Chapter 4 in The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Katz recounts the aggressive role that state governors played in the 1990s in gaining control over and transforming public welfare, focusing on Republican Governors John Engler of Michigan and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin as leaders in the devolution and reform of welfare. He argues that in the name of free-market reform Engler and Thompson increased welfare bureaucracy and intruded further into the lives of citizens (83).

Engler, elected in 1990, set out to end welfare dependency. He sought to uproot federal welfare programs and return power to the local level. Under his leadership, Michigan greatly reduced spending on AFDC and other poverty-related programs. He virtually eliminated Michigans General Assistance (GA) program. His initiatives were aimed at forcing able-bodied individuals into jobs. Despite protests, other states followed Michigans lead, eliminating GA, restricting eligibility and cutting other social services; thereby, shifting costs to local hospitals, jails and other facilities. Influenced by Catholic social thought and a free-market economics, Engler increased contracts to faith-based agencies to move away from government assistance. Michigans former General Assistance recipients, however, fared poorly, most did not find the jobs anticipated, most were poorer, developed chronic illnesses, and homelessness rose.

Engler also engaged in national policy debates, relentlessly lobbying the Clinton Administration to alter the AFDC waiver process, enabling states to innovate in administering and delivering services. In the late 1980s waivers began to be used to curtail benefits and limit entitlements. Clinton, sympathetic to governors desire for increased power over welfare reform, eased the approval process for waivers in 1995; and by the time the 1996 federal welfare legislation was passed, forty-three states had been granted waivers. Clinton also announced state welfare experiments and changes in regulations.

Governor Tommy Thomspon of Wisconsin also led the campaign to devolve public assistance to the states and instituted radical reforms. One of Thompsons policies, Learn fare, limited AFDC eligibility by tying the size of family benefits to school attendance by the familys teenagers. Learnfare failed to increase school attendance; yet, other states followed suit. By February 1996, thirty-four states were permitted to link welfare benefits to school performance. The emphasis on personal responsibility became the hallmark of welfare reform. Taking advantage of bipartisan anti-welfare sentiment, Thompson instituted the W-2 program. It rejected entitlements and family size as the basis of support and replaced it with the criterion that for those who can work, only work should pay. Benefits were also tied to strict time limits for finding jobs. W-2 resulted in an increase in poverty and homelessness in Milwaukee, lower quality and increased cost of child-care, negative effects on ordinary workers and union wages as the supply of low-wage workers grew. Despite these problems, Wisconsin became a model for welfare reform.

As governors responded to a national bipartisan anti welfare consensus, however, caseload reduction rather than poverty alleviation became the sole measure of success. Until the 1990s, the federal government took the lead in ensuring the welfare of vulnerable US citizens. Aggressive governors like Engler and Thompson redefined America's welfare state and helped to transform the nature of American federalism.