Tommy Thompson: Obama’s welfare change will take U.S. backward

President Barack Obama’s recent decision to relieve work requirements in welfare reform raises the stakes in this year’s election and confirms that our nation is at a historic fork in the road.

One road leads us further toward becoming a nation of dependents, with burgeoning debt and taxation used to finance a behemoth social welfare state. The resulting stagnant economy would resemble southern Europe, and the United States’ standing in the world would be severely compromised.

The president’s leftist ideological rampage through his first term has made this road all too visible.

The other road is one of innovation, empowerment and growth, where we depend not on government, but on families, entrepreneurs and communities. Where our policy decisions are governed by our values — honesty, hard work and living within our means. And the United States has enormous respect and influence in the world, fostering a new era of peace and democracy.

Last week, the Obama administration issued “guidance” to states to waive the work requirement for the first time since the landmark legislation was signed into law in 1996. It is not an exaggeration to say the president’s decision to hand out checks without requiring work is blatantly calling the question on what kind of nation we will be.

Wisconsin is the birthplace of welfare reform. Working with a bipartisan group of legislators and employers across the state, we ended welfare and created a path to employment through job training and strong work requirements.

By the time I left office in 2001, our welfare rolls had declined by 95 percent. We also cut taxes, capped government spending and made Wisconsin an economic powerhouse that created an unprecedented 740,000 jobs. Rewarding work rather than merely handing out entitlement checks was essential to Wisconsin’s economic revival.

In 1996, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Bob Dole used Wisconsin as the model for the landmark federal legislation, later signed by President Clinton. But last week’s announcement by the Obama administration severely undermines the essential premise of Wisconsin’s model and should be viewed as an insult by every Wisconsin citizen.

It is also a disturbing harbinger of what will happen if Obama is re-elected and Republicans don’t recapture the majority in the U.S Senate.

Wisconsin’s model is based on a simple premise: Work is inherently good, leading to self-respect, opportunities for growth and a rewarding life. Handing out taxpayer money to welfare recipients without work requirements creates generations of government dependents. The practice is morally indefensible, economically disastrous and an affront to hard-working taxpayers.

Abandoning work requirements will return our nation to the days of rampant welfare abuse and incentivize an underground economy where abusers take a government check while also engaging in illicit commerce of all kinds.

This is not to say welfare recipients are evil. On the contrary, former welfare recipients in Wisconsin showed great tenacity in learning new skills and working hard when we ended welfare. Countless workers who escaped the cycle of dependency thanked me for giving them a pathway to work.

But it is human nature to behave the way one is rewarded for behaving. If one is paid not to work, one will tend not to work.

I learned this fundamental lesson in economics as a child while polishing eggs in my father’s grocery store. Had he paid me to sit and read comics, those eggs would have never been polished.

The president’s decision to gut the 1996 welfare reform law is just the latest evidence of the fork in the road we face this election year. “Obamacare,” for example, is a clear government takeover of one of the largest sectors in our economy, as well as an intrusion into our own health care decision-making. Americans are just now beginning to fully understand the vastness of the Affordable Care Act and its threat to our economy.

And we were recently reminded by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on “Obamacare” that we cannot assume the courts will overturn bad laws. We must elect people we can trust to keep government in check and to honor our basic values as a country.

This stark choice of two radically different paths puts the future of our nation squarely in the hands of voters.

The president has created clarity in this election cycle and it is critical we not go backward toward a failed government program that undermined our American values of hard work and freedom.

Tommy Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor and secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a candidate for U.S. Senate.