TOMMY THOMPSON IS about to pack his bags for a trip to the place he once disparaged as ''Disneyland East.'' The governor of Wisconsin is not going on vacation. He's been nominated to head the crib-to-grave Department of Health and Human Services.
Never mind that he's a friend of tobacco and an enemy of abortion. You can be sure that Thompson will sail through his confirmation hearings when you hear even liberals sigh with resignation or regret: ''He's as good as it gets.''
Indeed, in the ideological world of compassionate conservatives, the 59-year-old is a star. He made his reputation as a welfare-reform crusader, combining tough work rules and expansive social services that cut his state's welfare rolls by 90 percent. In the process, he won a lead role in what is now - for better and worse - bipartisan social policy.
As good at it gets? Do you want to assess Bill Clinton's legacy by how he altered the ideological landscape? Cynics talk about how Clinton's misbehavior transformed sexual politics, how he made feminists question sexual harassment law and conservatives support it. But the most striking change has been in conservative and progressive policy toward poor mothers and children.
The man from Arkansas campaigned in 1992 with a promise to ''end welfare as we know it.'' He leaves office this month having ended welfare, period.
Without anyone acknowledging it outright, Clinton put a bookend on the most extraordinary social change of our lifetime. In the Depression, Aid to Families with Dependent Children was established to support widowed and deserted mothers, indeed to keep them out of the work force. In the '90s boom, AFDC ended with a message far more radical than anyone of either stripe acknowledged: A (poor) mother's place is at work.
The welfare-to-work reform gave block grants to the states for time-limited and work-oriented programs. The good news is that welfare rolls shrank and work rates soared. The bad news is that most families went from being welfare poor to working poor.
In Wisconsin, Thompson's program, Wisconsin Works, provided help for work as it removed supports for welfare. While he cut drastically, he spent liberally, for child care and health care and transportation.
But wages for former welfare recipients in Wisconsin remain around the poverty level of $13,880 for a family of three. And slightly more of the poorest children lack health care than before the overhaul.
Nationally the reform picture has become even less rosy. Some 3 million mothers and children who are off welfare have joined what Peter Edelman, who quit the Clinton administration over welfare reform, calls America's ''disappeared.'' Out of sight and out of mind.
About 40 percent of former welfare recipients aren't working. Even among the workers, most are earning some $6 to $8 an hour. In one study, 33 percent had to cut the size of meals because there wasn't enough food.
This is not to declare welfare reform a failure. About half the former recipients report that life is better off the dole and they wouldn't choose to go back on.
But the mixed economic result of welfare-to-work took place in the best economy in 30 years. A downturn doesn't just affect middle-class families with their IRAs invested in dot-coms. What if, for poor families, this truly is as good as it gets?
Clinton silenced many progressive friends. He signed a largely Republican bill and oversaw an unstated bipartisan agreement to talk about welfare but remain mum about poverty. Left and right, we celebrated reducing the welfare rolls. But, left and right, we squelched debate on reducing poverty.
As I remember it, one of the theories behind ''ending welfare as we know it'' was that the emphasis on work would erase the line between ''us'' and ''them.'' Americans would be more responsive to making a deal - a ''deal'' that said anyone who worked should be able to feed and house their families.
In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson got it right. Just not right enough. Before welfare reform comes up for reauthorization this year, there's ample time and need to reopen the debate about how to make life better for poor families with children.
Today one in five American children lives in poverty. When do we stop believing that this is as good as it gets and start asking whether it's as good as it could be?
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company