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Learning from Learnfare.

Too bad for Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson: Someone leaked the results of his much-celebrated Learnfare experiment to President-elect Bill Clinton. Clinton reacted, as would anyone who takes an unbiased look at the program, with dismay.

The bright idea behind Learnfare was to link welfare to school attendance - denying benefits to parents whose children miss too many days of school. The program left several Wisconsin families homeless and hungry to teach poor children a dubious lesson in "personal responsibility." Many families have been sanctioned unfairly, because of computer errors and poorly kept attendance records. And the program has done nothing to improve inner-city schools, where some Learnfare parents had stopped sending their children because of gang violence. According to a University of Wisconsin study, Learnfare had no positive effect on drop-out rates, nor did it accomplish its stated goal of reducing the welfare rolls. [See "Cutting the Lifeline: The Real Welfare Fraud," by Ruth Conniff, February 1992.] Despite these obvious failures - not to mention a class-action suit that resulted in a temporary Federal injunction against the program - the Bush Administration loved it.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan touted Learnfare as a model program, and George Bush praised his fellow Republican and pal Tommy Thompson as a "groundbreaker" in welfare reform. With the Federal Government's blessing, several other states set up programs that copied the Learnfare example.

Now Clinton is threatening to revoke the Federal waiver that allows Learnfare to operate.

Predictably, the Republican administration in Wisconsin is up in arms. No one has been less willing to learn from Learnfare than Governor Thompson and his welfare secretary, Gerald Whitburn. Whitburn tried to squash the university study that showed Learnfare to be a failure a year ago. Later, when the damning study was released, he insisted, contrary to all evidence, that Learnfare was a success, and pilloried the researchers who evaluated the program, calling them "biased" and "politically motivated" (this despite the fact that it was Whitburn's office that commissioned the study).

Learnfare was a political boon to Thompson. He rode the program for all it was worth, and got a great deal of mileage out of being one of President Bush's welfare-reform, point men. The results for a lot of poor people in Wisconsin amounted to nothing next to the political careers Learnfare helped advance.

But the winds have changed in Washington. Clinton is no Mother Teresa when it comes to people on welfare, but he doesn't have to be to see the glaring problems with Learnfare.

The old-boy network that kept Learnfare and similarly hollow programs alive is gone. Good riddance.
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Title Annotation:failed Wisconsin welfare restriction
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:End of the affair.
Next Article:Unpardonable.

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