5 min read

Twenty-five years after enactment of state and federal work-based welfare reform, the executive director of the Secretaries’ Innovation Group covers the circumstances surrounding the reforms’ passage and the positive effects of their implementation.

Just more than 25 years ago, on August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) into law. PRWORA implemented major changes to American welfare policy, replacing the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with a new Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program and granting states much-greater latitude in administering it.

PRWORA both helped Clinton fulfill his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it” and was a linchpin of the “Contract with America” that helped Republicans gain full control of Congress in 1994. Congress had passed two versions of welfare reform before Clinton agreed to PRWORA’s provisions.

The policy foundation for PRWORA was laid by state governors who had been seeking, and were granted by the Clinton administration, waivers from the previous system’s rules and requirements. Most of these reform-oriented governors were Republican, Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson perhaps foremost among them.

The pathbreaking “Wisconsin Works” welfare-reform program, signed by Gov. Thompson in April 1996, required recipients of increased government benefits to seek work and time-limited some benefits, among other things. With others, Jason Turner helped formulate the “W-2” plan, as it’s called. Like PRWORA, W-2 had attracted bi-partisan support in the legislature on its way to enactment.

Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, where I used to work, supported much research on welfare policy and related demonstration projects, locally and nationally, throughout the late 1980s into the early 2000s. Historically, Bradley gets much credit, or blame, for the role it played in helping to further the cause of school choice, but that which it did for work-based welfare reform is likely at least as successful, if not more so.

In addition to working for Gov. Thompson, Turner has worked with some reform organizations supported by Bradley. Before his Dairy State days, he worked in top welfare jobs  for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. After his cheesehead chapter, he ran New York City’s huge Human Resources Administration. He is now executive director of the nonprofit Secretaries’ Innovation Group (SIG), a membership organization of state human-service and workforce-development secretaries created and supported by Bradley.

Turner keenly understands, well, many things—including the dignity of work, the interplay of publicly and privately funded research and policy development, the challenges of public-policy implementation, and the opportunities for private philanthropy to uphold that dignity, better that development, and improve that implementation if, when, and where possible.

He was kind enough to engage in Q&A by e-mail with me earlier this month. Below is the first of two parts of the exchange, in which we cover the circumstances surrounding the reforms’ passage and the positive effects of their implementation.

In the second part, Turner addresses philanthropy and welfare reform, SIG, and application of the reform concepts internationally.


Hartmann: It’s been 25 years since big work-based welfare reform passed, on a bipartisan basis.  How has it done?

Turner: The reform was more successful than its most-optimistic advocates anticipated. This was against the backdrop of no evidence of a major social-welfare intervention having ever had an independent positive effect on a large scale.  

There are three big social-welfare indicators that were then and are now the most important:

  • Dependency—Down from 5 million families before to 2 million afterwards.
  • Employment—In New York City, the census reported that only 16% of mothers with no high school diploma were in the labor force 1995 and by end of the Giuliani administration, 46% were in the labor force. This is incredible.
  • Poverty—Down everywhere, because employment is up and dependency is down. In Milwaukee, child poverty was 26% before W-2 and down 6%, to 20%, two years afterwards.

Hartmann: Many would say wealth inequality has only increased since then. If this is true, then did welfare reform fail or make things worse?

Turner: There has been an economic boom since the 1990s. Many got much richer, including the middle class, but reform should be judged on how it improved the lives of each group, not by comparing them

Hartmann: Has welfare reform been undermined by other “dependency paths,” thinking here of what I think may be the long-term growth in food stamps?

Turner: Dependency paths have been at work in a very important way, especially the growth of disability and food stamps, and now the destructive excesses of the child tax credit.

Hartmann: How did federal welfare reform pass in the first place?

Turner: Clinton won the election by promising to end welfare as we know it. But once elected, he couldn’t get it done because his White House advisors lacked the mental architecture to follow through on what was necessary. They couldn’t abide by truly conditioning benefits on willingness to work or participate in a work program. If someone who refused was left with no income, this violated their ethics. Ultimately, it was made politically feasible by creating a block grant that was not dependent on a Congressional Budget Office analysis of costs.

President Clinton signing federal welfare-reform law in 1996

Hartmann: Have the cultural and political circumstances surrounding the ’96 law changed?

Turner: The national culture is not nearly as unified on the idea of work in exchange for benefits as it was in the 1990s.

Hartmann: Could such bipartisan reform ever even happen now?

Turner: It is difficult to envision now the level of unity of purpose that characterized the former period. 


Working in Wisconsin

Hartmann: Wisconsin’s W-2 welfare reform, also passed with significant bipartisan support and signed by Gov. Tommy Thompson, preceded the federal law. How did it help pave the way for the federal law, if at all?

Turner: With the Clinton plan stuck and unable to move forward (they never were able to publish their own plan), Clinton reacted by opening up a broad welcoming of state waivers, which had the effect of keeping reform moving forward while Clinton was deliberating to no effect. The waivers were Thompson’s godsend and allowed him to produce two new concepts per year for many years, ultimately demoralizing the Democrats and leading to the takeover of both state houses which was a necessary precondition for passage of the very radical reform without compromises of any kind. Most unbelievable. 

The passage of W-2 generated the interest of a reporter for The New York Times and became a cover story in the magazine. Everywhere, governors wanted to compete with the Wisconsin brand.  

Hartmann: Where else were there reforms that helped pave the way?

Turner: Michigan was out front, but mostly, many of the other state reforms had the political effect of gathering the national political impetus and inevitability of a national bill.

Hartmann: How has W-2 done?

Turner: The important features of W-2 are all still intact. The program continues to require work in exchange for benefits, which was one of its most-radical and -unappreciated aspect of its reform. (Almost everywhere else, benefits are guaranteed and reduced, but not eliminated for non-performance. W-2 allows for no residual benefit, it all must be worked off.)

Hartmann: Has it been undermined or eroded in some way?

Turner: Gov. Jim Doyle eroded an important tenet when he instructed administrators to be sure to “remove all barriers” to work-program participation prior to taking a sanction. This struck at the heart of the program. However, when caseloads rose as a consequence, he asked his staff why and changed back to the earlier interpretation, and the worst of the consequences of his policy change were avoided.

Hartmann: How did W-2 pass in the first place?

Turner: Gov. Thompson was given the mandate by the legislature to replace AFDC, which had been precipitated by his waiver proposals. It became effective in 1999 with an alternative system based on work. Once the Assembly and Senate went Republican, passage was assured, and Thompson himself was surprised at the radical nature of the proposal that Health and Social Services produced.  He told the state group that produced the W-2 plan “you went much further than I expected.”

Hartmann: Do you think President Joe Biden and his HHS would ever even be able to grant as many waivers as Wisconsin got leading up to W-2?

Turner: Probably not.

Hartmann: Could such state-level reform ever happen now?

Turner: Not likely with the same orientation we had back then.


The Q&A continues in Part 2.

1 thought on “Q&A with welfare reformer Jason Turner (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. John McClaughry says:

    Good to hear from Jason Turner, one of the real unsung heroes of sound public policy beginning in his days in Wisconsin. He should be guiding domestic policy for a responsible Republican president, if we we could identify and elect one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *