The welfare reform debate has been contentious and emotional, because it touches the most sensitive of societal issues: work, family, personal responsibility, and community integrity. Welfare reform has become a proxy for fundamental questions about quality of life and how to allocate personal and public responsibilities. We are uncertain as a society whether assuring economic security for children is more important than providing clear consequences to parents who fail to play by the rules. We argue whether individual irresponsibility or societal barriers are at the root of welfare dependency. We continually debate the efficacy of available interventions: Can economic sanctions and rewards effect changes in behavior? Can the human capital of recipients be raised to a competitive level? Would the most disadvantaged respond if work were really a rational economic alternative? We debate the fundamental goals of reform--to save money or save people; to reduce poverty or minimize welfare dependency.
No one would credibly argue that information, by itself, will resolve the most intractable of these disagreements. But information, when used properly, can narrow the scope and range of prevailing confusion and identify remaining points of contention more sharply. In some instances, it can temper the most blatant expressions of unsubstantiated opinion. If information is to make a difference, it must be seen as objective and credible. IRP has promoted discussion of the evaluation tools and strategies best suited to understanding the transformation of welfare, and affiliated researchers have several projects investigating the effects of welfare reform.
Welfare Reform in Wisconsin
Since major welfare reform began in Wisconsin in the mid-1990s, IRP researchers have been studying the experiences of participating families. They are intensively studying the Wisconsin Works (W-2) program, investigating what happens to those families that have left welfare as well as those that remain. Reports covering some of those studies are listed below under the heading Wisconsin Studies.