The Getting Opal Caples to Work

By Jason DeParle
The New York Times Magazine
August 24, 1997

'Ooooh, I was mad!" Opal Caples says, recalling the notice from the welfare office. "They said we had to start working for our welfare check! I said, 'How could they do this to us?' I didn't feel it was right, to take our money -- that's for our children." And as a black woman living in Milwaukee's sprawling black ghetto, Caples detected a hidden agenda. No one talked about work rules in the 1930's, when "welfare was made for middle-class white women," she says. "They're really just targeting the black women."

A bright, animated, street-smart woman who punctuates her speech with knowing glances -- you know what I'm talking about, her look insists -- Caples is telling her story on the No. 12 bus one July afternoon as it shakes and wheezes down Teutonia Avenue, past the check-cashing counters, liquor stores and lounges. She has dropped her three young daughters with her cousin, Jewel (actually with Jewel's 13-year-old nephew, Little Chuck, since Jewel wasn't around), and before long she'll be toting trash and swabbing toilets in the gastrointestinal lab of a downtown hospital. It's second-shift work and she's unhappy that her girls are asleep by the time the No. 12 shakes home. "They don't even see me at night," she complains.

As the hours wear on, Caples never surrenders her contention that with the strict new work rules pushing people from the rolls, something dangerous and unfair is under way -- crime, drugs and prostitution will rise, since "women gonna do what they gotta do." Yet it turns out she enjoys her work. "I like this job," she says that evening, mopping the lab with the radio loud. "Every job I had, you always had somebody gawking over you. This job ain't like that." She also likes the money, which is "more than welfare was giving you anyway." At times she even sounds as if she's campaigning for the work rules she distrusts. "You ain't dealing with the system," she says. "You ain't waiting on no man. You're doing for yourself." Then just as she seems half-convinced, Caples mocks herself with a laugh. "Now if I could take a break and come back in a month!"

The program behind this tentative, conflicted handshake with work is by far the most daring to emerge since President Clinton signed last year's watershed law, imposing time limits on welfare recipients and devolving vast new authority to the states. Indeed, Wisconsin's effort represents the most complete rethinking of public assistance in the 62 years since women and children first began receiving Federal aid. For more than a year, the state has imposed the nation's most stringent work requirements. But a week from now, on Sept. 1, cash assistance in Wisconsin will essentially end. The system that will take its place goes to unprecedented lengths to construct a safety net not around a check but around a job.

It is tougher than anything that has come before: virtually no one is exempt. It is also more generous than anything that has come before: the state is offering child care and health care not just to welfare recipients but to all low-income working families, and it is creating thousands of community-service jobs. It puts new power in private hands: the entire Milwaukee system has been put out to bid, to private job-placement agencies. It is a serious, risky, expensive attempt to offer taxpayers what they claim they want and what, until now, politicians have failed to provide: a system that makes work work.

And it leaves Caples, like 40,000 other Wisconsin recipients, crossing uncertain ground. Falling somewhere between easy cases and the hardest ones, she seems to operate with a kind of dual citizenship, fluent in the language of the streets and of the working world above. She is a high-school graduate of obvious intelligence whom employers like to hire. "I have a personality that attracts people to me -- I do," she says accurately. But she loses jobs as fast as she finds them, and a few months after joining the hospital, she has supervisors fretting over her absences. That is to say she's the kind of woman -- with untapped talents and unpredictable troubles -- that the state, the nation, is seeking to transform.

A year ago, as President Clinton fulfilled his "end welfare" pledge, there was ample reason to worry. What had started four years earlier as a thoughtful plan to fix a broken system had dissolved into an election-year hazing of the poor. The long-term prospects of the new, state-controlled system remain unknown. No state has faced the economic downturn that will test its safety-net commitments. Only a handful of recipients have hit time limits.The competition among states to chase recipients away by withdrawing services and support -- the feared race to the bottom -- may still ensue.

But whether by luck or by design, the early returns offer three sources of modest reassurance -- and all are on magnified display in Wisconsin, where a robust economy and a history of progressive state government may offer a best-case glimpse of what devolution can become. Nationwide, the rolls have dropped 26 percent from their historic high three years ago, and nearly a dozen states have seen declines of 40 percent or more. But none rival Wisconsin, where the rolls have plunged more than 60 percent since their peak a decade ago. While some of those leaving the rolls have fallen into a more abject form of poverty, early evidence suggests the vast majority have not. Like Caples, so far they appear more resourceful than some people feared.

The second welcome development is the cash. Under the logic of block grants -- fixed payments pegged to the higher caseloads of a few years ago -- the falling rolls have produced a windfall even larger than expected. States will receive about $2.6 billion more from the Federal Government this year than they would have under the old entitlement system, a 16 percent increase. While some of the money is being siphoned into tax cuts and roads, most states are spending at least part of it on new services for the poor. Michigan is investing in caseworkers. Illinois is spending on child care. If Wisconsin's ambitious gamble succeeds, no one should forget the price tag. Last year, the state spent about $9,700 for every family on welfare; this year, after converting to the new, work-based program, it will spend about $15,700. That's an increase of 62 percent, and it gives women like Caples new access to child care, health care and last-resort jobs.

A third hopeful sign -- on uneven display elsewhere but unmistakable in Wisconsin -- concerns what might be thought of as a new civic energy. Legislation alone cannot move four million welfare families into the work force. The effort will require the attention of governors, bureaucrats, employers, advocates and especially the front-line workers who have major new responsibilities. For years, the welfare office has languished in torpor. But now, across the country, it is becoming a focus of creativity, a locus of hot lines, van pools, clothing closets, resume classes -- a place of policy chic.

Not all the news has been good. California and New York have just emerged from rancorous and immobilizing legislative battles that affect nearly a third of the nation's caseload. Texas has squandered its energy on a fight to hire private food stamp and Medicaid workers -- peripheral players with no role in the central challenge of putting recipients to work. No major municipal bureaucracy has shown it can overcome the vast problems that take hold when caseloads are counted by the hundreds of thousands. If the race to the bottom is one danger, so is running in place. With the economy alone driving much of the caseload reduction, even a do-little system can look good.

But Wisconsin, the policy petri dish that produced unemployment insurance, might again be on to something big. Having stumbled into a vow to abolish welfare three years before the new Federal law, the state has had to confront, more than any other, the question of what should take its place. The effort to answer has brought a civic transformation along strange-bedfellow lines. The old program was chased away by a Democratic legislator, Antonio Riley, who was once on welfare himself. The new system is being generously financed by a Republican Governor, Tommy G. Thompson, who came to office pushing a welfare cut. It is being implemented in Milwaukee with the support of a Democratic Mayor, John Norquist, who is among Thompson's main rivals.

It doesn't take a crystal ball to picture all that could still go wrong. With her attendance problems, Caples has shown she can get a job -- not that she can keep one. There are few opportunities for education and training. There may not be enough jobs to go around, and the jobs women find may not offer a route from poverty. Work may well be its own reward, but will it prove a broader elixir? It's possible that putting women to work will do nothing to shore up the prospects of men, and the absence of fathers may be the more corrosive force in the ghetto. To the extent the new system leads women to work, it also leads them away from their kids, who will be left in arrangements of varying quality. The effect on children is anyone's guess.

The economy could go bad.

Support services could erode.

Some people will surely fall through the cracks.

But these are simply the perennial concerns, and they have paralyzed policy for a generation. What's new, in Wisconsin at least, is that an unlikely constellation of characters has begun the work of addressing them.

The Legislator: He Knew Welfare Up Close

When Antonio Riley says that "67 percent of the people in my district are on some sort of public assistance," he is advertising his dismay and his bona fides. He makes the introduction as he drives west from downtown toward the low-rise ghetto whose 50,000 residents he represents in the state assembly. At 33, Riley has a crisp manner and New Democrat instincts. His shirt is starched. His district is not.

Once a settlement of prospering factory workers, the cityscape is marked by empty lots and hand-lettered signs on corner groceries that invite the use of food stamps. Riley's tour mixes in glimpses of an autobiography that once followed the same downward spiral. There's the house where the family lived before divorce and a stay on welfare; there's the house where Riley himself drew general relief. The tour is capped with a favorite line: "It's sort of ironic that someone like myself, someone who grew up at one point on welfare, was the one to blow up the system."

The plot began at a backyard picnic. In September 1993, Riley attended a party given by his former boss, Mayor John Norquist. Like most Democrats, they were exasperated with the state's welfare politics. Tommy Thompson, the Republican Governor, had fashioned a national reputation out of minor but well-publicized programs, and now he was at it again. Trying to beat Clinton in the race to "end welfare," Thompson was pushing a strict two-year limit -- but only in two rural counties. "He was taking credit without doing anything," Riley says. The Democrats could go along as Thompson's popularity soared or continue to be cast as the defenders of a discredited system.

As the party progressed, Riley vented his frustration to an important behind-the-scenes player. Officially, David R. Riemer served as the Mayor's chief of staff. But for years his life had been consumed by an offbeat quest to kill off the welfare system and substitute a program of community-service jobs, like the New Deal's Works Progress Administration; he had even helped start a public-jobs experiment in Milwaukee called New Hope. Hearing out Riley, Riemer threw down a dare: end it. Respond to the Governor's two-county demo by repealing welfare statewide. Riley was stunned and then intrigued -- he considered welfare "a jailer of people." With the Mayor's blessing, he and Riemer met the following week and drafted a daring one-page bill. It would repeal Aid to Families With Dependent Children, then the main Federal welfare program, and replace it with minimum-wage work.

A plan to end welfare would seem to have unlimited appeal. In reality, it raised immobilizing questions about what should take its place. It's one thing to say that women like Caples should work. It's another to explain who will hire them, care for their children and insure they have health care.

Oddly enough it was the Democrats in Wisconsin who had contemplated bolder change, most notably Norquist, who had called for the repeal of A.F.D.C. as early as 1990. But by the fall of 1993, the legislature's Democrats were still deadlocked on the underlying issues. That's when Riley floated his stripped-down idea -- end welfare by a specific date and work out the jobs program later. In a surprise move, the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly, Walter Kunicki, embraced the idea (he recalls conceiving it on his own), and it passed without a Republican vote.

Now, in a bizarre inversion of welfare politics, it was the Republicans' turn to squirm. The Democrats had become the welfare repealers. And the man out front was a black official who represented more recipients than anyone in the Assembly. The Republicans complained it wasn't a serious plan, and in a sense they were right. Half the Democrats voted for it just to put Thompson in a bind. Gerald Whitburn, the Secretary of Health and Social Services, denounced the move and all but promised the Governor's veto.

Then Whitburn had breakfast the next morning with the Governor himself. Thompson said he had no intention of a veto, and laid into him for suggesting it. By letting him end welfare without having to spell out the details, the Democrats had given him more of an opening than he ever could have won by himself. A few weeks later he signed the bill, pledging to end welfare no later than 1999.

No one had more than the vaguest idea of what would take its place.

The Program Director: He Hasn't Met a Recipient Unsuited for Work

The 91st Street headquarters of Milwaukee's Goodwill Industries is a 215,000-square-foot monument to the organization's motto: "We Believe in the Power of Work." Washing machines the size of freight cars fill one side of the factory, and a packing business turns the other into a shrink-wrapped cornucopia of soap, furniture polish, calendars and car locks. But the striking thing about the industrial tableau is the sight of some of the workers. There are people crossing the factory floor in wheelchairs. There are men and women with Down syndrome sorting parts through inch-thick glasses. It is the visual embodiment of Goodwill's quasireligious belief that labor is a gift everyone can give. And it is a scene that implicitly challenges the assumptions of the old welfare system, which offered cash to the able-bodied like Caples while expecting nothing in return.

The rethinking of the safety net that began four years ago has led to Goodwill's door. In designing the new program, Wisconsin Works, known locally as W-2, the state tried to make Milwaukee's 25,000 cases more manageable by dividing the city into six districts and inviting bids. Having won the contracts for two districts, Goodwill has become Wisconsin's largest welfare office, with 20 percent of the state's caseload. The $119 million contract brings the group new money to pursue its central mission of reducing the barriers to work. "We believe everyone can give something back," says William Martin, the earnest young executive in charge.

W-2 operates on the same assumption, conceiving a four-rung ladder of "work opportunities" meant to accommodate all recipients, no matter what their background or skills. At the top is a regular unsubsidized job. For those it deems "job ready," Goodwill will provide coaching, job leads and child-care subsidies, but not cash. For those a step behind, the W-2 agencies can create subsidized jobs with private employers. On the next rung down, there are "community-service jobs" -- workfare slots that demand 30 hours a week for a grant of $555 a month. And those at the bottom of the ladder, often with addictions or mental illness, will find themselves in something called Transitions. The "work" might consist partly of drug treatment or physical therapy, but it should fill 28 hours a week for a grant of $518. (Thompson is pushing to raise the grants by 20 percent.) The point is that no one should be doing nothing.

In putting the system up for bid, the state hoped to attract new energy and ideas -- to attract people like William Martin. Though Martin, 30, spent most of his earlier career in state and local government, he sometimes talks like a business student on No-Doz. He likes to talk about "getting to yes" and finding "win-win opportunities" for his clients. Welfare programs used to define their mission as "income maintenance." Martin's is called Workforce Solutions. He hopes to make Goodwill the city's pre-eminent staffing agency, the place where labor-starved employers can turn for a pool of prescreened, qualified workers. And he is offering bonuses to caseworkers with the best placement rates. "We start from a moral premise that it is simply unconscionable to leave somebody on welfare," he says. "If the goal is to get somebody out of poverty, the only way to do it is to get them a job that pays better."

W-2 pays better (for all but the largest families). Under A.F.D.C., a mother with two children received $9,456 a year in cash and food stamps. Under Thompson's plan, even Transitions would pay $10,668. A community-service job would pay $11,168. That's still 16 percent below the poverty line of $13,330 a flaw worthy of note. But the calculation changes significantly with the move to unsubsidized work. After food stamps and tax credits are added in and co-payments for child care and health insurance are taken out, even a minimum-wage job nets $16,524. (The plan to offer health care, on a sliding scale, to all low-wage workers is still being negotiated with Federal Medicaid officials.)

In theory all the supports should be in place next week when W-2 takes hold. But no one can be sure how it will work. One worry is that the contractors' financial incentives will backfire, and that they will deprive poor women of support. The W-2 agencies are being paid much like health-maintenance organizations -- they get a fixed payment to serve a pool of families. The faster they whisk them off the rolls and into unsubsidized work, the more money they make. The longer they leave clients on the bottom rungs, drawing grants and expensive services, the less money they make.

To break even, Goodwill estimates it must cut its caseload in half over a 28-month period. That has never happened, and there's not much, besides good intentions and some vague contract language, to keep a W-2 agency from declaring the most hapless clients "job ready" and withdrawing support. When I assume in passing that someone with a third-grade education would start on the third rung, in community service, Martin interrupts. "That won't keep them from getting a job in this market." Who does he have in mind for Transitions? "An individual with two broken arms and two broken legs, or severe mental illness that has not been stabilized."

That's a long way from income maintenance.

"Look at the people who go to our corporate headquarters," Martin says. "They may have command of only one muscle. And they show up. And work. Every day! All these families can succeed."

The Employment Counselor: She's Looking to Change Attitudes

The Opportunities Industrialization Center, or O.I.C., lies across town from Goodwill in literal and metaphoric terms. It operates from a converted theater on a down-in-the-mouth stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. A table of bow-tied Black Muslims provides the security, and pictures of black nationalists adorn the yellowed theater walls. It's not what most people have in mind when they envision a Republican work program. Like many of the group's employment counselors, Darlene Haines has much in common with her clients. A black woman raised by a single mother in Decatur, Ill., Haines had so many siblings (an even dozen) that the family ran out of names; two of her brothers are named Robert. Two siblings have been murdered and most have received public assistance. Indeed, when Haines turns to Case 2101689928, the computer screen flashes her name. Laid off a few years ago, she too applied for welfare, but her unemployment benefits left her ineligible.

W-2 leaves vast new authority with front-line workers like Haines, the $25,000-a-year gatekeepers to the new system. Their attitudes are surprisingly tough. "Some people are so lazy they don't want to do a damn thing -- hate to say it like that," Haines says. "If the system had cracked down like this years ago, it wouldn't have gotten as bad as it is." Some of the clients in turn call the caseworkers " 'hood rats," self-impressed women who recently left the rolls. "I get a lot of that, especially when I come in with a nice suit and pumps," Haines says.

But attitudes tell only part of the story; across the new system, abilities are an open question. The five agencies running W-2 in Milwaukee have widely varying cultures. Maximus is a Virginia-based, for-profit corporation. Goodwill and the Y.W.C.A. are nonprofits, but with sturdy corporate structures. United Migrant Opportunity Services, like O.I.C., is a smaller, grass-roots agency. And all are operating under contracts that, in David Riemer's view, don't do enough to distinguish between agencies that find people jobs and those that simply chase them from the rolls. "There's a danger that some providers may prove as bureaucratically dysfunctional as the welfare agencies they replace," he warns.

I watched a caseworker at one agency spend an hour just reading a list of job titles to a class of recipients. Had they awakened, this is what they would have heard: "Mathematics -- reading graphs and stuff like that -- it gets real deep when it comes to mathematics....Agriculture, that thing with cows, gets real deep -- giving them those hormones....Forestry. Why don't we see any more wolves? Somebody eating them?"

Haines has nine years of the Army behind her, but it may take that and more to reach some of the women arriving for orientation. Two bring typeset resumes, and with the Milwaukee unemployment rate at 5.9 percent (statewide it is 3.8 percent), that alone virtually guarantees a placement. Choosing from a list of immediate openings, one opts for a teller's job at an Indian bingo parlor; the other picks clerical work at an insurance company. They depart for interviews and get hired.

The rest are another story. One is crunching potato chips. Another has shown up drunk. As Haines briefly leaves the room, operatic warnings break out. "They're fixing to start a war!" one woman says. "They're building orphanages and prisons. It's going to be like in Mississippi!" Haines returns to say she has more bingo jobs for anyone who can pass a drug test. One woman wants to know if marijuana is a drug. The class heads downhill from there. "I can tell this isn't working," Haines sighs.

There is a bright spot of sorts. Needing a body for a practice interview, Haines calls on a woman wearing a blue sweatsuit and a bored look -- Opal Caples. "I know how to get a job," she says. "I just don't know how to keep a job."

After dragging herself to the front of the room, Caples more than makes her point: she knows how to get a job. Her posture straightens and the g's stop falling from the end of her sentences. "I am a courteous person," she announces to her imaginary employer. "I am hard-working. I am dependable." Passing through an invisible screen, she leaves her street persona behind.

"What motivates you to work?" Haines asks. "Being around smiling faces," Caples says, smiling.

"What are your greatest achievements?"

"Well, I graduated from high school, and back in '96, I completed a 13-week nurturing course."

"If I asked you, when could you start?"

"It would be next Monday, so I could arrange my baby-sitting situation."

"That won't be an issue?"

"No, I won't let it affect my job performance."

By now the class is roaring. "Girlfriend!" the woman with the potato chips shouts. "And you said you wasn't motivated!"

Then as soon as she returns to her seat, Caples goes back to being Caples. "I'm one of them women who don't want to work!" she says, sounding worried that no one will believe her. "I liked that welfare check."

Haines is delighted. "The sister's going to make it," she says.

The Architect of Reform: He Wants to Make Welfare History

Ruddy, round, rumpled and balding, and smoking a cheap cigar, Jason Turner might sooner pass for a beer distributor than a welfare intellectual. But at 44, he has been puzzling over the subject for nearly three decades. He was still in junior high school in Darien, Conn., when an article on "welfare queens" jolted him. "It hadn't occurred to me that there were whole classes of people who didn't work and who basically existed on Government charity," he says. He wondered what would happen if everyone tried that. While other students scribbled football plays, Turner began sketching plans to replace welfare with work. He was still sketching decades later when Thompson asked him to design W-2.

With the program about to begin in Milwaukee, he took off recently to check on the two sites where it has been running since March. The first stop was Pierce County, a picturesque stretch of farms and factories on the Minnesota border -- no one's idea of a welfare zone. Still, even Turner can't believe how much the rolls have fallen. A decade ago, the caseload peaked at 387. By March, when W-2 began, it had fallen to 43. It was reasonable, then, to suspect that those who remained would pose a formidable challenge.

Reasonable but wrong. Now as Turner arrives, there are only eight people still getting cash, and three just haven't been placed in W-2 yet. Two others are briefly exempt because they have infants under 12 weeks old. That essentially leaves a caseload of three, all in Transitions: one applying for disability benefits, one recovering from a car wreck and one on bed rest for a troubled pregnancy.

The rest simply made other plans after being classified "job ready." While some may have slid toward tragedy, the Pierce social workers don't think so. They found that 64 percent were employed and that 19 percent had other income from family or friends. There was no information on the remaining 17 percent, but none wound up in the child welfare system, and none have called for help.

Driving out of town, Turner says he's seeing welfare history in the making. In the past, analysts have warned that the bottom third or so of the caseload may well be unreachable, and with that in mind, most work programs have included sizable exemptions. By contrast, in designing W-2, Turner pushed the principle of immediate, universal work -- no exemptions, exceptions or delays. The real test won't occur until next month, when W-2 takes hold in Milwaukee, but the vanishing Pierce caseload deepens his conviction. "We're finding that everyone can work," Turner says.

Not much in his early life would have pointed him toward the poor. His father was an advertising executive who marketed Zest and Crest. But by high school, Turner was planning factories where welfare recipients could assemble Christmas ornaments and reap "the dignity" of work. He joined the 1980 Reagan campaign and spent five years as a Federal housing official. Getting nowhere with his welfare ideas, he left to make his millions as a landlord -- only to lose his shirt when the 25 apartments he bought in a poor Washington neighborhood were overrun with crack addicts. Still, he returned to government, as a senior welfare official in the Bush Administration, more street-smart than the average bureaucrat. "I got a ringside view for three years," he says.

Out of a job after the 1992 elections, Turner took a welfare job in Wisconsin state government. He arrived just before the Democrats killed off welfare, and the chance to design its replacement was literally an adolescent dream come true.

What's the hold of welfare policy? Turner, who has just left state government to start a consulting firm, the Center for Self-Sufficiency in Milwaukee, answers in near-religious terms. "It's plumbing the soul -- figuring out why people do the things they do."

Arriving in Fond du Lac, the other experimental site, he finds more reasons to be buoyed. The caseloads have crashed -- from 791 three years ago to 187 now. And the caseworkers seem, if anything, even tougher than Turner himself. Even a visit with Dick Schlimm, one of the town's leading advocates for the poor, produces only quibbles. If he were to design a system of his own, he says, it might pay higher wages, but "it probably wouldn't look too much different than W-2." An untouched Arch Deluxe graces the dashboard for hours, but Turner is off in the clouds. "Down to the very last line worker, they had taken to heart and acted on the conceptual framework of the reforms," he says.

The Shelter Operator: She Sees No Apocalypse Yet

When Barbara Vanderburgh was 13, her father gave his life to Christ -- or more precisely, to the block-long building with the sign that proclaims, "Christ Died for Our Sins." Vanderburgh was sufficiently ambivalent about her father's decision to leave the phone company and run the Milwaukee Rescue Mission that she used to duck when riding in the family station wagon, which had "Rescue Mission" written on the side. "I didn't want people to think I was living there," she says.

Now the question is, how many others will be living there, too? Across the city, soothsayers are predicting disaster. Talk of "Nazism," "slavery" and orphanages abounds, and it brings to mind the more learned warnings offered last year by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "Just how many millions of infants we will put to the sword is not yet clear," he said, denouncing the new Federal law. "We will have children sleeping on the grates."

Events may still prove Moynihan right, but the apocalypse isn't now. Hunger and homelessness are on the rise: a system that supports families only if they work is bound to leave some more destitute. The question is whether to judge the casualties large or small -- alarming or reassuring -- in light of the vast changes under way. So far the evidence, while early and mixed, falls more on the reassuring side. "To be honest, we were braced for worse," says Vanderburgh, who now runs Joy House, the mission's family shelter.

The run-up to W-2 began in March 1996 when the city switched to a precursor system, known as "pay for performance." About half the city's recipients were placed in the program, including Caples, who greeted the development with such fury. The rules required her and others to spend 20 hours a week in a community-service job and another 12 hours looking for private work. Over the ensuing months, nearly 30 percent of the city's welfare families vanished from the rolls. Since the state refused to track them, no one can be sure where they've gone. But the evidence doesn't point toward catastrophe.

While homelessness is notoriously hard to measure, Joe Volk, the chairman of the Milwaukee Shelter Task Force, estimates that the number of families in shelters rose by about 25 percent last winter. On a given night that translates into about 41 additional families, or about 120 women and children. It's a lot when measured in human terms, but still a tiny minority of the 10,000 families who have left welfare.

The other available data hint at a similar story, of rising but manageable need. Requests for food assistance are up: the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee saw activity at its food pantries rise by 14 percent last year. But the increase seems to be leveling off. Reports of child abuse and neglect are up. But they've risen for 12 of the last 14 years, and they are still lower than the 1994 peak. Crime, meanwhile, has declined.

One wouldn't expect the full impact to show up at once, and these numbers can be expected to rise. Inside the shelters themselves, two kinds of stories can be heard. For some women, the loss of a check merely punctuates a life of defeat. With the shelters full during a snowstorm last winter, I found myself driving a woman across town so she could sleep on a church floor. She had known that she would lose her check as soon as her work notice arrived; she was just too despondent to comply. "I stay depressed all the time," she said. It was an indescribably sad night, and one that mocks the word "reform."

But some women insist that the loss of a check can mark a turn for the better. Many of the women who have flooded Joy House are addicts, too distracted by their habits to meet the work requirements. "I'm here because I need to be here," one woman explained. "I was really jacked up." Homelessness isn't a drug treatment plan, but neither, Vanderburgh argues, was a no-strings-attached check. "People are afraid and they're looking for help," she says.

The Governor: He Has Become More Than a Budget Cutter

For years, Tommy Thompson's detractors waved him off as a welfare charlatan --a man grabbing big headlines with small programs while ignoring (or attacking) his critics. A centerpiece of his first governor's campaign was a modest benefit cut, with the savings shifted to job training. He moved on to Learnfare, whose chief virtue was its catchy name. Then came Bridefare and Work Not Welfare, the time-limited experiment he insisted on restricting to two rural counties. Meanwhile, he often addressed the issue with a belligerence that seemed nakedly political. When I spoke with him in 1994, just before he won a record third term, he was boasting that his programs made liberals feel like "their hearts had been cut out." Welfare, he said, was a "fantastic campaign issue."

Now the conventional wisdom about Thompson has changed: whatever W-2 may be, it is not tinkering. Antonio Riley's theory is that abolishing welfare has transformed Thompson, who understands his national reputation will be linked to the program taking its place. "He's come very far," he says. Mayor Norquist also tips his cap. "The Governor should be proud," he says, calling W-2 "perhaps the best welfare reform program in the country." Even Thompson embraces the theory of a New Thompson. "I'm a lot smarter now than I was 10 years ago," he recently told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I'm much more even tempered."

Curious about the change, I traveled to Madison late last month to join him for lunch. I caught him on a Thursday, the day he opens the residence grounds to the public, and our meal was interrupted by a crowd of women, staring through the dining-room windows with their noses pressed to the glass. Had they been able to listen in, they would not have heard an exercise in modesty. "Welfare reform in America would not have happened without me," he said.

At least Thompson has something to boast about now. To his credit, his theme throughout lunch concerned the need to invest. "I have debated conservatives who think that welfare reform is going to save money," he said. "And I have told them that changing a system from dependence to independence is going to cost more, because you have to put money into child care and into job training and medical care and transportation. The liberals have complimented me on that."

And after years of being accused of tinkering, Thompson chose an interesting word to describe his concerns about others. "I think other states are going to tinker with it too much," he said. "I'm somewhat fearful that they're going to have difficulty making the giant leap like we are in Wisconsin."

These are the right worries. Running a work program is costly and consuming -- it involves endless skirmishes with legislatures, bureaucrats, advocates and unions of public employees, who fear being displaced. "You have to have a lot of stamina," Thompson warns. Reports from the biggest states are not reassuring. In New York and California, the rhetoric of work has far outpaced the needed bureaucratic change, and the heavy lifting is essentially being left to the counties. (So far, the work program in New York City, while impressive in size, is mostly for single adults.)

Awash for now in Federal money, other states are investing, especially in child care. But many are also pocketing a good part of the Federal windfall. Wisconsin has reinvested the whole Federal increase, raising its spending this year from $451 million to $645 million -- a 43 percent jump in the overall budget even as caseloads fall. Thompson is spending large sums on child care, health care and caseworkers.

But his most intriguing move, and perhaps his most revealing, is his push to increase the grant levels themselves. This is, after all, the same Governor who cut benefits within months of taking office, and then froze them for the ensuing decade -- spearheading an erosion, in real terms, of about 40 percent.

Now, as a signature move under the new, work-based system, Thompson is pushing for a 20 percent increase in grants. (Community-service jobs would rise to $673 from $555, and Transitions, the work program for the most disadvantaged, would rise to $628 from $518.) In advocating the raise, Thompson overrode his closest welfare aides, and he is battling his own party in the legislature. "We had the dollars to do it and I thought that we ought to do anything we can to make this program successful," he said. "It's brought in a lot of opponents and advocates to help make the system work, instead of standing outside the tent and throwing stones at it."

The hope is that the new support is a sign of things to come, here and elsewhere. In political terms, there are two ways to view last year's epochal debate. The fear, of course, is that killing the Federal entitlement simply insures the erosion of the safety net: that politicians can always find more appealing targets than poor people to spend money on. The counter hope, perhaps a wispy one, is that converting welfare recipients to workers, even in community-service jobs, will transform their political standing. Welfare benefits have dwindled for decades, but support for the "working poor" has recently flourished.

Extending the thought, a few analysts (most prominently, Mickey Kaus) have argued that by signing the law, President Clinton has set the stage for a broader resurgence of activist government. (And a jobs program for the underclass is certainly that.) Welfare wasn't just a political yoke on the Democratic Party; its failures were an impediment to the very idea that government can help the poor.

So far, both sides in the debate -- the supporters of the new law and the critics -- can claim vindication: the safety net is growing in some places and growing holes in others. But oddly enough, Wisconsin's experiment, in the hands of a Republican Governor, has emerged as the leading hope for what government -- more government -- might accomplish in the postwelfare era.

Not surprisingly, there are still important battles being fought along those very lines. Perhaps the most significant centers on the community jobs. To truly insure that women like Caples have work when they need it, the state may have to make the jobs an open-ended offer -- a safety net of last resort. But Thompson, spooked by worries about "make work" jobs, has defined them only as short-term training. With rare exceptions, a W-2 participant can spend no more than six months in a single community-service job, and no more than two years in community service in a lifetime.

It's a view that, among other things, refuses to acknowledge the realities of recession. And so, when pressed, does Thompson. "We think a good share of the welfare people will not necessarily be the first ones laid off," he said.

What happens if W-2 gets caught in the vice of rising need and falling revenues is impossible to predict. But for now, Thompson has embraced an outline -- of jobs, child care and health care for the broad working class -- that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. "I never dreamed we'd be at this point," he says.

The Recipient: Will She Learn to Live With Work?

Lumbering to a halt, the No. 12 bus leaves Opal Caples a half block from Sinai Samaritan Hospital, where she spends her evenings with a cleaning cart. Scrubbing and dusting for the next six hours, she offers a spirited monologue on the changes sweeping the city, but some of her bluntest criticisms are saved for herself. "I've always been able to work," Caples says. "I just don't always want to work."

But work runs in the family. "My mother was never on public assistance -- she always worked," Caples says proudly. Indeed, her mother spent 22 years at a Zenith factory, often holding a second job while raising five children on her own. But when Caples is asked what she was like in her youth in Chicago, she breaks out in laughter. "Bad!" she says. "I was smart, but I was out of control. I hung around the gangs." Caples eventually conformed with the conventions of responsible behavior. She graduated from high school and got a job at Wendy's. She waited until she was 22 to marry, then waited a year longer to have children, to be sure the marriage would work. It didn't. Her husband quit his factory job for the flash of a drug hustler's life. He moved in with his pregnant girlfriend and left Caples living on welfare. As for their children -- Sierra, 7; Kierra, 5, and Tierra, 4 -- "he don't call them, he don't see them, he don't buy them nothing. "

As her life unraveled four years ago, her cousin Jewel invited her to Wisconsin. A week later, she was stepping off the bus, with five suitcases and three young children to her name. Though some academics dispute it, most people in Milwaukee are convinced that their generous benefits attract women from the immense Chicago ghettos 90 miles south. Caples says nothing to dispel the theory. Her monthly benefits shot up 50 percent (from $411 to $617), while her rent correspondingly fell. "It was easier to survive," she says.

And it was easy to find work on the side. Caples can list seven jobs she has held in the past four years, and there may well be ones she has forgotten. The usual problems arose -- child-care emergencies, a terminally ill car -- but they aren't what Caples emphasizes. "I knew I always had that welfare check!" she says. But the check got harder and harder to keep. There were "all kinds of goofy classes" and endless job-search regimens. Weary of the hassles, and seeing the W-2 deadline on the way, Caples found the hospital job in February. "With this W-2, you have to work -- have to, know what I mean?" she says. "I think it's different for me now."

Is it? On the one hand, she seems to like the job. At $7.69 an hour, it pays more than she has ever made. It offers benefits -- medical, dental and life insurance. And it also offers the chance to train for other hospital jobs, which could pay up to $10 an hour. Though it involves emptying trash and cleaning toilets, she seems to feel it offers a certain status. She talks with delight about being invited to a company picnic and having doctors know her name. On the other hand, she hates working second shift, and like many inner-city women, she distrusts center-based child care, worrying about the reports of molestation that travel the ghetto grapevine. She remains convinced that W-2 is racially biased, and she even quotes Malcolm X, to warn what women without welfare may do. "Any means necessary to take care of your kids," she says. "If I don't have a job, who's to say I wouldn't prostitute myself? I pray to God it don't happen, but to some people it will."

It wasn't a complete surprise to discover, earlier this month, that Caples was missing from work. She hadn't called in for three days, and under hospital policy that probably meant she was fired. She doesn't have a phone, so I left a message with her boyfriend's mother, and the next day she placed a collect call back. The verve in her voice was gone. She and her boyfriend had had a fight, and he had moved out. She said she was too distraught the night of the breakup to bother calling work. Then figuring she was fired anyway, she simply didn't go back. Plus she now had day-care problems: Jewel had found a job, and Caples, suddenly single, had no place for her girls. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she said.

But her boss had asked me to pass on a message, and Caples sounded surprised that he wanted to see her. She summoned the courage to give him a call, and a few hours later she was in his office, describing her hapless week. When it comes to supervisors, Caples couldn't have drawn better luck. Having served on the board of a homeless shelter, Charles Lee wasn't looking to see another family on the streets. And it couldn't have hurt that he was taking a master's-degree course called Social Influences on Business Management -- and that he had written his term paper on W-2. "I know how tough it can be," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can."

Sitting in his office that afternoon, Caples wrote out a three-page plea for mercy that impressed Lee with its eloquence. She explained what had happened. She pledged to do better. She said she had arranged for child care. Lee passed it on to the hospital vice president. The appeal is pending.

It's a disappointing moment, but the architects of W-2 would call it progress. Caples may still save her job, or she may quickly find another. She may return to Darlene Haines's class and get packed off to Indian bingo. If things really fall apart, she could find herself doubled up with Jewel -- or suddenly out on the streets. The one route no longer open to her is to simply return to the rolls. She's striking off, on shaky legs, into an uncharted, postwelfare world.

Copyright © 1997 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.







Web site, event and media relations assistance provided by McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations of Nashville, Tenn.

For more information on MP&F, visit