The New Wisconsin Idea

Reinventing Public Compassion for the 21st century

On September 17, 2013, Sagamore hosted an event at the National Press Club to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the landmark Wisconsin legislation that ended the state welfare programs established by FDR. The event featured former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson on why he signed the legislation, and UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith on why the UK is adopting the Wisconsin Model to shape their own welfare reform agenda.

Wisconsin Welfare Reform: 20 Years Later

On 13 December, 1993, then-Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson signed legislation ending the welfare state programs established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt 60 years earlier.  The times had changed and a well-intended program aimed at caring for widows and orphans in the throes of the Great Depression when women were excluded from the workforce had become the means to intergenerational poverty. 

Incremental change would not transform the lot of America’s poor.  Gov. Thompson believed that a fundamental shift from entitlement welfare to personal empowerment was the only route to social justice.  While Washington remained mired in debate, Thompson joined a bipartisan team of state legislators to officially proclaim that FDR and Lyndon Johnson’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children could not be reformed; it must be replaced. 

Throughout the years 1994-95, Thompson’s team designed a program that would not only be adopted in Wisconsin but serve as the tipping point in American social policy.  The 1996 Federal law proposed by a Republican congress and enacted by President Clinton was inspired by the Wisconsin model.  It has since been replicated internationally by Britain’s Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Listen to the National Press Club Event

Since its implementation in 1993, countries like Germany, Israel and the Netherlands have replicated core elements of the Wisconsin Model. David Cameron’s government in Britain reinvigorated his movement under the leadership of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith, who borrowed from Wisconsin’s experience to shape the core of their welfare reform agenda. Listen to Gov. Thompson reflect on why he signed the ’99 legislation and former Tory Party leader and welfare chief Iain Duncan Smith explain why they adopted the Wisconsin Model.

Sagamore Press

Sagamore co-founder Jay Hein served as a policy aide to Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson in the 1990s. Hein later wrote The New Wisconsin Idea to describe how Thompson completely overhauled his state’s welfare system, leading to a 90% reduction in welfare assistance and record levels of employment for single mothers. The book also explains how Wisconsin’s model served as the blueprint for the 1996 welfare reforms passed by Congress and inspired similar reforms in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, and Israel.