Sparking Welfare Reform

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1986

In 1986, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation built an intellectual coalition for welfare reform. Its $300,000 grant assembled top conservative and liberal social scientists to see if agreement could be found on ways to reduce the destructive effects of welfare programs on family structure, work rates, crime levels, and other social factors. Members of the new group on both sides of the political divide made concessions, and a final report entitled “The New Consensus on Family and Welfare” was drafted under the leadership of Michael Novak.

The conservatives acknowledged that government has a role to play in the alleviation of suffering. The liberals admitted that welfare programs often produce dysfunctional levels of dependency. The report sketched the outlines of revised programs, with work requirements and supports that would be healthier for U.S. society. This new synthesis proved to be the kernel of the welfare-reform compromise that was eventually debated and passed into law during the Clinton administration.

Another bit of seminal philanthropy was the 1982 funding from the Olin Foundation that helped Charles Murray write his influential critique of the existing welfare state, Losing Ground. Olin grants also supported two books by Lawrence Mead that made the case for work requirements in return for cash payments. The Bradley Foundation sped welfare reform as well by paying for the research that led to Marvin Olasky’s book The Tragedy of American Compassion—which uncovered the forgotten but highly effective religious-based charity of the nineteenth century, reviving interest in faith-based social work.

The most direct way Bradley advanced welfare reform, though, was by helping set a successful template in their home state of Wisconsin. The foundation established the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute to take some of the fresh theory being generated by national scholars and reformers and translate it into practical new policies that could improve the lot of the poor in Milwaukee and the rest of the state.

This activity emboldened Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson to launch demonstration projects overhauling welfare in a couple of Wisconsin counties. Soon these experiments were expanded to the entire state. Instead of handing out welfare checks as automatic entitlements, the state began to require certain constructive behaviors from recipients, such as finding employment or pursuing an education, while offering them help with child care, transportation, and other practical barriers to work. When he needed additional scholarly help in designing these reforms, and encountered resistance from academics at the University of Wisconsin, Thompson turned to the Hudson Institute, also supported by Bradley (and Olin).

These late-1980s experiments resulted in dramatic reductions in welfare dependency across Wisconsin, rising work rates, and improved child welfare. That in turn inspired the federal welfare-reform legislation signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, which quickly cut national welfare caseloads in half, chopped poverty rates, and brought other healthy results. By using its home state of Wisconsin as a “laboratory of democracy,” the Bradley Foundation proved that smart local philanthropy could yield powerful national results.