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Governor Tommy Thompson and Welfare Reform | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Governor Tommy Thompson and Welfare Reform

Wisconsin Works, BadgerCare, Pathways to Independence

Governor Tommy Thompson and Welfare Reform | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Former Governor Tommy Thompson, 2002, WHI 27077.

Former Governor Tommy Thompson, 2002

Former Governor Tommy G. Thompson speaks at the unveiling of his official portrait, painted by portrait artist George Pollard. View the original source document: WHI 27077

Wisconsin Works, or W-2, was a pioneering piece of welfare legislation that became a national model for welfare reform. Signed into law in 1996 by Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, W-2 replaced Wisconsin's benefits-based system with one that required individuals to find work while providing money for both school and child care. W-2 was the first in a series of groundbreaking acts initiated by the Thompson administration to provide state-supported aid to working families and individuals in Wisconsin — echoes of which were seen in Massachusetts' plan to extend health care to all its working citizens.

Following Wisconsin's experiment in welfare reform, Governor Thompson proposed a plan to provide health care benefits to low-income and disabled people, one of the weaknesses of W-2. His BadgerCare program, formally launched in 1999, provides health insurance to uninsured working families. More than 77,000 people had enrolled in BadgerCare by 2000. Another program, Pathways to Independence, became the nation's first program to ensure the continuance of health benefits for disabled individuals who entered the work force. For elderly and disabled citizens, FamilyCare allows them to receive in-home care as long as possible.

Wisconsin's experiment in offering public insurance coverage to low-income, uninsured individuals and families has drawn the interest of both state and federal policymakers. The President's Council of Economic Advisors noted in 2000 that "direct provision of health insurance through public programs is the most efficient way of targeting low-income families." Policymakers have also been impressed with the comprehensive benefit package offered to its enrollees.

Unlike other legislative initiatives, BadgerCare and its associated programs represented truly collaborative efforts between Republicans and Democrats. While they may have differed on the structure, all agreed on the programs' importance. Following Wisconsin's lead in providing aid to working people by changing the way health care is provided, several other states and cities have recognized that government programs may offer the best and most cost-effective solution for extending healthcare to uninsured citizens.