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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 January 2008, 12:40 GMT
The US model for Tory welfare plan
Analysis
By Norman Smith
BBC Political correspondent

Conservative proposals to force the long term unemployed to work for their benefits were drawn up after studying the experience of similar schemes in the US, in places such as the state of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin map
There are strict time limits for benefits claimants in Wisconsin

Supporters of welfare reform Wisconsin-style claim it has achieved the Holy Grail of benefit reform - that has eluded most governments - namely a massive fall in the number of claimants.

Since the programme was introduced 20 years ago the number of claimants has fallen by a staggering 80%.

But this has not been cheap or easy.

The Wisconsin model comes with a hard edge - in the form of strict time limits for people claiming benefits.

'Lavish resources'

Even for politically sensitive groups like single parents there is a strict two year time limit on claiming welfare. After that, they have to get a job.

The rules are even tougher for single able-bodied men. For them, beyond food stamps, there are no benefits.

The Maximus Centre in south Milwaukee claims to find a job for claimants within four weeks - and with pay above the minimum wage

And yet this big stick is coupled with a very big carrot - in the form of help to find people jobs.

This is contracted out to the private sector who are paid to get people back into work.

These privately run job centres, are lavishly resourced, and often look more like slick city law offices than traditional job centres. And nowhere inside is there any mention of "benefits".

Claimants are allocated their own special adviser; are offered catch-up classes in English and maths; computer courses; seminars on interview techniques and CV writing. There are counsellors and drug workers available.

Many job centres have a creche and there is often a clothes library so claimants can borrow smart clothes for an interview.

Work pays?

And the success rate of these centres is impressive.

The Maximus Centre in south Milwaukee, for example, claims to find a job for claimants within four weeks - and with pay above the minimum wage.

In other words these are not just jobs flipping burgers.

But here's the rub. Although benefit numbers in Wisconsin have fallen dramatically, this has not been a huge money saver.

Indeed the amount of money spent on welfare has hardly dropped.

Instead the money saved on benefits is simply spent on finding people work and then providing them with the support to stay in work.

But supporters of the Wisconsin scheme argue it better to pay people to stay in work than to pay them to stay at home on benefits.



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