A difference in philosophy

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The purpose of government assistance should be to transition people to self-sufficiency.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER brought former four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson along as his administration rolled out its latest round of welfare reforms. Readers who have followed state politics for years may remember that Thompson made Wisconsin a national model for welfare-to-work reforms in the 1990s.

Walker's plan would increase work requirements for able-bodied benefit recipients and require photo identification in order to use food stamps, a measure aimed at eliminating fraud in the program. He also would require drug tests for individuals in order to have access to public housing assistance.

Earlier, Walker proposed drug testing recipients for food stamps, with the aim of detecting abuse and routing individuals into treatment to help them transition to eventual employment.

OF COURSE, THAT set off a howl from the usual crowd claiming every requirement is just plain mean to poor people who already are victims.

First, take note: We'd wager the vast majority of recipients are not abusing drugs and have nothing to fear.

Second, we'd also bet most of those able-bodied folks already are among the working poor and would not be further jeopardized by the plan.

And, third, this debate clearly illustrates a major disagreement in the philosophy of how to approach poverty.

On the Walker side, there's a conviction that if a negative cycle ever is to be broken there must be accountability. The objective is not to provide benefits to people. The objective is to move people from benefits to gainful employment so they can take care of themselves. Or, as Walker has put it, benefits should be a hand up, not a handout. Providing benefits never will raise people out of poverty. That takes skills training and a decent job.

The other side, though, says the Walker approach and others like it - Thompson heard the same thing in the '90s - victimizes the victims. Laying down a serious set of requirements has been called mean, even an attack on families.

WE ARE REMINDED of a powerful phrase spoken a few years ago by then-President George W. Bush. Recognizing that poor people often felt they were trapped in a box, Bush laid much of the blame on what he called "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Let's repeat that: "The soft bigotry of low expectations."

The goal always should be encouraging people to rise beyond their immediate station, and helping them find ways to get there. Sometimes, that's a gentle hand. Other times, it may be a swift kick in the butt.

For most people, the Walker rules, if enacted, will not be onerous because they're already in compliance. For the others, the Walker rules may provide the impetus to get their act together and chart a course toward a better future. We think the governor's right on this one, just like we thought Thompson was right in the '90s.

BY THE WAY, this is another example of complex situations breaking down simplistically along partisan lines. Walker's new rules are red meat for the Republican base. And Walker's new rules comprise an opposition rallying call to the Democrat base. What a shame. It's in everyone's best interest to lift people out of poverty and into family-sustaining prideful work. Both sides have a role to play. The tired old Republican whine about welfare queens is not productive. Neither is the knee-jerk Democrat opposition to every expectation tied to getting benefits. The best approach undoubtedly is somewhere closer to the middle - compassionate and accountable - not in the way-left or way-right camps established by the parties. Republicans and Democrats often seem more interested, for partisan advantage, in batting back-and-forth like a tennis ball the people impacted by a situation. In our book, that is neither compassionate nor accountable.

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