FATHER OF “WORKFARE” IN THE U.S. ENDORSES BIG IN IRAQ (from 2007)
This essay was originally published in the USBIG NewsFlash in April 2007.
Republican Presidential Candidate Tommy Thompson has endorsed BIG—at least in a foreign country. On his campaign website, the former Wisconsin Governor calls himself “the reliable conservative in the 2008 presidential race.” The first reason he gives is, “Tommy Thompson is the father of welfare reform.” Thompson has a good claim to that title. Since 1996, welfare reform, also known as “workfare,” replaced conditional cash support for single mothers with work requirements, sometimes for less than minimum wage, without providing daycare. The plan was modeled on an earlier Wisconsin program initiated by then-governor Thompson. Workfare is usually motivated by the belief that poor people have a responsibility to take whatever jobs are offered, even if they have substantial childcare responsibilities.
Thompson is literally the last America one might expect to endorse BIG—a plan to provide unconditional cash benefits to every citizen. But Thompson has not only endorsed BIG, he has made it a major initiative in his campaign. He has discussed it in numerous interviews and speeches and at the Republican presidential debates. He hasn’t endorsed BIG for the United States but as part of his strategy to win the war in Iraq. The BIG element in Thompson’s Iraq strategy is that one-third of Iraqi government oil revenues will be reserved for a fund to provide every Iraqi with a small income guarantee modeled after the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF). USBIG Newsletter readers will recall that the APF was the initiative of another Republican Governor, Jay Hammond. It provides a small but significant income guarantee to every Alaskan resident.
Of course, both the APF and any likely Iraq proposal fall short of the goals of most BIG supporters because they are not large enough to cover the recipient’s needs—a “partial BIG” rather than a “full BIG.” But Alaska experience has show that even a partial BIG can make a great difference to the needy and sets the right precedent.
Thompson’s plan is rather far from implementation, however. To introduce it, the U.S. would have to be continuing its involvement in Iraq two years from now, when a president Thompson would take office. At that point the U.S. will have been at war for nearly six years. Even then, Thompson could only recommend the plan to the Iraqi Parliament, which is formally recognized by the U.S. government as the sovereign government of an independent country. If the whole of Thompson’s plan is adopted, United States would likely remain at war in Iraq for four more years while we find out whether the military elements of his plan work.
Thompson has not discussed extending the Alaska-style plan closer to home, nor does he seem aware of the possible conflict between the goals of an APF-style BIG and his pedigree, Workfare.
What’s the big deal if a politician in one country supports BIG in another country where he may have little influence even if elected? It show that framed in the right context, BIG can have a great appeal even to work-ethic conservatives, and it demonstrates the growing appeal of the APF precedent. The APF is so obviously successful, so popular, and so cost-effective that it appeals even to the father of workfare. Much of the motivation for workfare has been popular American resentment against people who receive direct government payments. But there is little resentment in America for people who receive property income whether or not they work and whether or not they received their property through work. The APF makes some part of Alaska’s oil revenues into part of the personal property of every Alaskan. It’s theirs; they own it. It is quite natural to infer that if it is right for every Alaskan to own a share of their oil, then perhaps every Iraqi should own a share of their oil too. But once you have endorsed that principle it is quite natural to infer that every South African should own a share of their gold. Every Botswanan should own a share of their diamonds. Every Welshman should own a share of their coal. Every Bolivian should own a share of their tin. And the full inference is that everyone should own a share of all natural resources. If we put that principle into practice, single mothers would not need workfare at all.
-Karl Widerquist (Michael Lewis contributing), New Orleans, LA, April 2007