How do you contribute?
Question: What is your proudest achievement?
Tommy Thompson: Well I think . . . I don’t think there’s one. I think there’s probably four that stand out. The first thing, you know, that everybody knows me by is that I am the father of welfare reform. I wanted to help poor mothers in the state of Wisconsin – which turned out to be the country – to be able to have a better life. I just thought it was really sad that we’d send them a check and not expect anything from them . . . and never expected them to work. You can’t get out of poverty without having a job and being able to work, and being able to have the American dream. And I talked to them. I brought them in and had dinner with them. And I found that, you know, most welfare mothers had the same aspirations that everybody did. They wanted the best for themselves and their children. They may have had some mistakes. They may have had a lot of bad luck; but they wanted . . . they wanted to work. The vast majority of them. And I gave them the tools in order to do that. And that was . . . That was really the . . . sort of the major change in social policy in the last 50 years in America, and I started it over the kitchen table with welfare mothers talking to me how we could do a better job for them.
And then I did the same thing for private school of choice. I wanted poor children in the city of Milwaukee to be able to have an opportunity to choose the best school for them; that they would learn to stay in school, get a high school degree and be able to do whatever they wanted to do . . . to have their dreams.
And the third thing, I changed the state of Wisconsin from being a highly anti-business state to one that was very pro-business. And one that was really, you know, developing things for business community so they could create jobs. I wanted . . . I wanted businesses to feel like they had a chance to make it in Wisconsin. And with that, they had a . . . they had a concomitant responsibility to Wisconsin to create jobs for young people, and for people to have a good paying job. And that’s, you know, was economic revitalization, social revitalization, education revitalization.
And then I took on healthcare because I wanted poor people to have healthcare. I could never understand, you know, the philosophy of not having poor people to be covered. When I left the state of Wisconsin, I had reduced welfare caseload by 93% – more than any other state ever in America. I was able to start the only really progressive school of choice program for poor children – poor minority children in Milwaukee. I was able to . . . to help the business community create 800,000 jobs and was able to drop the unemployment down to 2%. And then I was able to get more people covered by health insurance so that we were the lowest in America as far as uninsured. I couldn’t understand, you know, having uninsured that end up going to an emergency ward, which is the most expensive healthcare . . . making sense out of that. It just didn’t to me. So I wanted to have poor people have healthcare so they could go and get their preventative tests and stay out of the hospital. It would save money and give them a better chance.
So actually, I’ve had four really cultural, conservative revolutions that . . . from my state that have made complete change. And then at the Department of Health and Human Services, I was able to get the Congress to pass, you know, pharmaceutical coverage Part D drug coverage for seniors. It was, you know . . . Democrats and Republicans had worked on it for 12 years before I became Secretary, and I was able to get it passed. Of course the President commissioned me to do that, and I had a lot of help from the White House. But the truth of the matter is it was the Department’s responsibility to get it passed and we did that. So I’ve had, you know, tremendous successes. And that’s what, you know, I think sets me apart from a lot of the candidates that are currently running for President.
Recorded on: 7/6/07
Welfare reform, education, healthcare and business for Wisconsin.
An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.
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