Tammy Baldwin
Tammy Baldwin

Credit: ljlphotography on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–I nearly leaped off the sofa Saturday while I was reading The New York Times profile of Wisconsin’s new Sen.-elect, Tammy Baldwin, who won decisively by 6 points.

What got me is the description of her opponent as Wisconsin’s "centrist former governor, Tommy G. Thompson."

By whose measure is Thompson a centrist? Not by mine and certainly not by many knowledgeable about the economics of women’s lives.

Thompson, who was governor from 1987 to 2001, is the author of Wisconsin’s so-called welfare reform with features that quickly swept the nation and leave us with an alarming array of dire statistics about women’s poverty.

Here’s one: The year prior to the Thompson-inspired change in federal welfare law, 1996, 68 families out of every 100 who were eligible received federal welfare assistance, according to a 2011 report by the Washington-based Center on Budget Priorities. In 2009, only 27 out of every 100 eligible families received aid. Roughly 85 percent of these families are headed by women.

With that kind of data in mind, I think of moms skipping meals when I think of Thompson. I think of them shivering in the cold, with their children wrapped in blankets on their lap, unable to pay the heat bill, staying with violent partners, walking miles for job interviews, leaving their kids asleep in a car in a parking lot while they work the night shift, giving up any dream they might have of gaining the job skills and education they need for self-sufficiency. And worse.

Baldwin’s victory over Thompson is a defeat for the public policy ideology he promoted all the way to a cabinet post in the George W. Bush administration as head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

I met Baldwin in the fall of 2011 at a small fundraising event in the Manhattan home of a gay-rights advocate. Gloria Steinem was there to issue the feminist seal of approval. I was impressed with Baldwin’s command of the issues and her clarity.

But her race didn’t become of utmost importance to me until Thompson won the Wisconsin Republican primary on Aug. 14.

A Sweet Option

The possibility of a progressive lesbian Democrat gaining a seat in the U.S. Senate by defeating Thompson was just too sweet. I, however, was not too hopeful that it would happen, given the recent success of the far-right in Wisconsin elections. I began checking Baldwin’s poll numbers at least twice a day. The weekend before the election, the polls indicated she was only 0.8 percent ahead of Thompson. Nervous making.

The program that Thompson rolled out in the early 1990s, when he was Wisconsin governor, is known as W-2. It offers impoverished single parents "case management" that includes assistance with a job search but with no cash assistance or placement in a community service job. Those jobs now pay $653 a month; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker cut the pay rate by $20 a month in his 2010 budget. Total annual wages: $7,836 a year, before taxes, child care and transportation expenses.

The appeal of Thompson’s plan sounded like common sense: These folks living on the government dole should be made to "work for their money," just like the rest of us.

What it ignored were these common realities: Welfare already had a work requirement if the single parent’s youngest child was 3 years of age or older; most single parents would prefer to have the dignity and the revenue from a good paycheck; and a job does not necessarily lift a single mother’s family out of poverty.

Women earn significantly less than men by working. For example, Milwaukee women are paid on average nearly 24 percent less than men. Hispanic women in Milwaukee working full time are paid only 44 percent of the average median earnings of white men, according to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research.

Add to that the fact–also according to the institute–that single mothers’ unemployment is typically higher than that of married men and women partly because single mothers tend to be younger and have lower levels of education. They also have a tougher time finding jobs and reliable child care. Jobs with paid sick leave and health insurance are scarce for single mothers. And because they earn less, women’s unemployment and Social Security payments are lower.

Ignoring Hard Facts

Most significant, Thompson’s plan and rhetoric, and those who followed his lead, ignored the hard truth: Federal welfare is a child support program. It provides financial support to significantly low-income single parents in the place of absentee parents who should be paying child support but often aren’t, for a host of reasons such as death, disability, unemployment or irresponsibility.

The single parent raising the children is most often female and the absentee parent that the government is picking up the tab for is most often male. Thus every cut in funding and every additional hurdle for single parents to jump through to receive assistance mean more single parent families are left with a parent unable to provide the basics.

Thompson’s program was enormously popular and served as the model for the 1996 law ending Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replacing it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). (Both programs go by the general name of welfare.)

No longer were impoverished single mothers automatically eligible for cash assistance: They had to work at the jobs assigned them, its promoters touted–despite the already existing work requirement. When it passed, basics of the 1996 welfare law said parents had to seek work when their youngest child was 3 months old. In Wisconsin, that age is now 8 weeks. The previous law permitted single parents to waive the work mandates if they were in school full time. The new law strictly limits educational opportunities to a year or less.

Replacing Well-Paid Jobs

As a result of this so-called reform, New York during the late 1990s replaced well-paid city park employees with welfare mothers working for a comparatively tiny paycheck. This is how the city’s parks balanced its budget. It is likely that other jurisdictions across the nation took similar steps. In addition, thanks to the new law’s end of the education exception, the number of welfare mothers enrolled in post-secondary education nationwide–the kind that can actually produce income security–dropped precipitously.

And incredibly, as if prices would never go up and recessions would never occur again, the amount of money the states received to pay for TANF benefits became a block grant frozen at 1996 levels; regardless of a state’s caseload.

The result: Cash assistance benefit levels for the nation’s poorest families with children is below 1996 levels in all but two states, after adjusting for inflation. Six states, including Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia cut benefits in 2010, reducing assistance for more than 700,000 families or over one-third of all low-income families receiving assistance, according to the Center on Budget Priorities’ 2011 report.

None of this background was part of the Baldwin-Thompson campaign, but it was what kept me checking the polls. The 0.8 percent number had me genuinely scared that Thompson would win and his welfare agenda vindicated.

For the millions of single parents struggling to raise a family without child support–from their former partner or the government–all we can say is watching someone like Thompson lose to a lesbian progressive is the best.

Go Tammy.

Rita Henley Jensen is founder and editor in chief of Women’s eNews.

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