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E-Letter To The Wall St. Journal: Are You Sure About Tommy Thompson And Welfare Reform?

Your January 2, 2001 editorial, "On, Wisconsin" is sadly, the latest example of the Wall St. Journal editorial page's recent drift away from true principles of economic growth and closer toward blind partisanship. In your rush to embrace the incoming Bush administration and in particular the nomination of Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson for the cabinet post of Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), you have manifested the worst aspect of zealous partisanship- intellectual laziness and maybe dishonesty.

Ironically, you reveal some of the bankruptcy of your support of Governor Thompson by relying upon the Clinton administration to make the case for the Wisconsin Governor.

Is this editorial the Wall St. Journal's most recent foray into the waters of bipartisanship? Does it reveal a newfound respect for the Clinton legacy, coming from the same paper which excoriated the two-term president throughout the Whitewater, Travelgate, Teamster and Lewinsky affairs, we wonder?


The effort to bring the Clinton administration to the witness stand on behalf of the Thompson nomination is a shameless attempt to inoculate the Wisconsin governor from any legitimate criticism aimed at his management of Wisconsin's much celebrated welfare reform program commonly referred to as "Wisconsin Works" or "W-2".

On the editorial page of one of America's most prestigious newspapers, instead of offering a legitimate analysis of the poverty reduction and economic growth impact of welfare reform in Wisconsin you attempt to validate your support of Gov. Thompson's work in part by using a Clinton administration program with dubious merit and credibility.

In your editorial you wrote:

As the new pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mr. Thompson will be carrying the ball of George W. Bush's compassionate conservativism through the Beltway line.

Even the Clinton Administration would have a hard time contesting Gov. Thompson's credentials. That's because just this month the reigning HHS secretary, Donna Shalala, awarded Wisconsin a "high performance bonus" in recognition of its "superior results in welfare reform." Of the 28 states that qualified for the bonus, Gov. Thompson's Wisconsin ranked number one in terms of the largest improvement in job retention and earnings. And of the four categories ranked and measured--job placement, job success, biggest improvement in job placement and biggest improvement in job success--Wisconsin was one of only three states to qualify in three categories.

But did the Wall St. Journal even bother to look at the criteria used by the Department of Health and Human Services in awarding its "high performance bonus"?

We hope not because if it did it would indicate that the Journal has stooped to new lows in its defense of the Republican Party establishment.

Considering that you did not bother to review them, or worse - read them and saw how they damaged your argument and then decided to willfully omit them from your editorial; we direct your attention to the August 30, 2000 Federal Register which on pgs. 52840-52846 clearly articulates the guidelines for the HHS rewards that you seem to hold in such high regard.

In the Federal Register the four categories in which Wisconsin is awarded " superior results for welfare reform" - job placement, job success, and biggest improvement in job success, are defined.

The definitions and comments regarding each category not only raise considerable doubts about Gov. Thompson's accomplishments with welfare reform but also bring into question the legitimacy of the arguments made by conservatives for years that welfare reform is working and leading to self-sufficiency.

We can almost rest our case on HHS' position, spelled out in the guidelines, regarding a minimum income threshold for jobs that would be considered in determining which states are excelling at welfare reform.

It reads:

"The NPRM did not specify a level of earnings or other threshold factor that a TANF recipient would need to achieve in order for the State to count the individual in the job entry, job retention, or earnings gain measures. Thus, as little as one dollar of earnings in a quarter would count in determining who entered employment, how long they remained employed, and how much their earnings increased."

[NPRM stands for Notice Of Proposed Rule Making; TANF stands for Temporary Assistance For Needy Families]

Because it apparently strengthens the case for a Republican governor and an incoming Republican administration, the Wall St. Journal has referred to a standard of welfare reform that considers $1 of earnings in 3 months as the basis for determining job entry, job retention and earnings gain.

This monetary standard means that Wisconsin, which came in second in the "success in the workforce" category and first in the "most improvement between 1998 and 1999 in the success in the workforce" category, did so by a measure that considers a person who has earned $1 in 90 days as "in a job".

HHS does this even after they indicate in the Federal Register that a debate took place among HHS employees, advisers and state officials over the legitimacy of such a standard. In the Federal Register it reads:

"Some commenters suggested that we tie work measures to minimum threshold, e.g., that we count only those persons whose wages are at the poverty level or above the minimum wage. Those commenters reasoned that the proposed measures reward States that place recipients in jobs without regard to how long they will last or whether they move the family towards self-sufficiency."

HHS' response to this argument, in short was, "We have not established an earnings threshold in the final rule because there is currently insufficient baseline information for selecting a threshold"

Sounds like a cop-out to us. We believe there was sufficient information but maybe not sufficient interest in what the data might produce.

Then, if that isn't enough to dislodge your allegiance to Clinton administration numbers that you may have thought made Governor Thompson look good, we would like to reveal more flawed reasoning that under girds the standard used to judge success with welfare reform.

How long does a former welfare recipient have to be in a job before they have been considered to be stable in that job or to have "retained" it?

The HHS deems that only 6 months in a job is necessary.And here again, the HHS made this determination over the objections of many.

In the Federal Register it reads, "There were a number of comments in support of extending the retention measurement period; only one State commenter recommended a shorter retention period. Most of these commenters supported extending the retention measure to one year, but other recommendations included an 18-month period or a longer period, if possible. In general, they believed that six months is too short a period of time to demonstrate that an individual has achieved job stability."

Sounds like those dissenting "commenters" have a reasonable argument to us…but HHS didn't think so. They respond to such arguments: " We continue to believe that job retention over six months is a reasonable indication of stable employment".

We can't imagine anywhere else but in the mind of those trying to fudge numbers in order to make welfare reform sound like a success where a person in a job for 6 months is considered to be in a stable employment situation.

But wait, it gets worse.

HHS outright admits that the length of time for the job retention category wasn't extended because of what we deem to be political reasons. They state, again in the Federal Register:

"In addition, an extended retention period would delay when critical performance data would be available. Given the lag in data availability, the longer time frame would not allow us to make bonus awards in the bonus year to which they apply. Further, if we did not issue the FY 2003 bonus funds by September 30, 2003, they would return to the Treasury, unless Congress reauthorizes the bonus and appropriates funds."

So instead of determining reasonable criteria for measuring success with welfare reform the government decides to ignore sane arguments and available data.

Sounds like they were more interested in spinning welfare reform into an award ceremony, that would produce photo-ops and good publicity, than they were in proving it.

And to top it all off, HHS included wage-paying, fully subsidized jobs in all of its work measures. This means that there is no distinction made in the measures between jobs where welfare recipients competed with non-welfare recipients for positions and jobs that were created after companies were paid a subsidy to hire welfare recipients.

For the Wall St. Journal to have referred its readers to very questionable HHS figures simply to embolden the case for Governor Tommy Thompson to become the next HHS Secretary is more than disappointing.

And far from demonstrating bipartisan support for Thompson which may have been one of the aims of your editorial, you actually have very clearly revealed the political, financial and even emotional capital that both political parties have invested in portraying welfare reform as a success when the available data does not readily support such claims.

Your editorial is one more contribution to three years of propaganda, no better than its predecessors, which do prove that welfare rolls have been slashed but don't prove that former welfare recipients are moving into gainful employment in any manner that would justify the entire program being called a success, much less a "welfare-reform miracle".

We actually have respect for conservatives who state very honestly that they judge the success of welfare reform by how many people are taken off of the dole and not by whether or not they are moved into jobs. At least anyone is clear on what welfare success means to these conservatives, and more importantly, anyone is able to evaluate their arguments according to a clear standard with plentiful data to support or refute their position.

The Wall St. Journal, on the other hand, attempts to style welfare reform as a one-two punch and success where welfare recipients leave federal dependency and move toward a state-authored form of economic independence and improved living conditions, primarily through securing employment.

Your editorial makes that bold assertion regarding Wisconsin, "where Governor Thompson challenged and broke what appeared to welfare's intractable chain of dependency. The result is not simply millions saved in welfare expenditures but thousands of lives and families improved", as you put it.

Too bad you relied upon a flawed measure to support that claim and failed to offer any convincing data of your own to back it up.

And we find it very hard to believe that the Wall St. Journal editors, who have worked for several years; spent untold financial resources; and dispatched numerous investigative reporters, in several states, in order to shed light on allegations and to expose the immoral and unethical activities of the president and his staff, would accept the Clinton administration's claims about welfare reform and Tommy Thompson, on face value.

It is especially troubling that the Wall St. Journal, supposedly the world's leading advocate of economic growth, now finds it more important to support Republican cabinet nominees than to prove whether or not human beings, who were once dependent upon government, are now actually rising above poverty, into self-sufficiency, and onward to economic prosperity.

You seem to be confused about which event is more important and may have even participated in the crafting of an economic argument, designed to serve your political interests.

"On, Wisconsin" proves that partisanship and editorial writing simply do not mix.


Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, January 3, 2001

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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