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A Blue-Ribbon County

By Adam Cohen

TIME magazine

(TIME, April 21) -- If the Wisconsin State Fair had a welfare-caseload reduction contest, rural Marquette County (pop. about 13,000) would walk off with the blue ribbon. In a state that is fast shedding cases, Marquette's drop has been the steepest: down 91% in the past decade. And it's one of a handful of thinly populated counties that have got the number of "work-qualified" households on their welfare rolls down to a notable benchmark: zero.

It isn't that Marquette has no welfare cases. The county is 13 families away from that distinction. But for reasons ranging from disability to care of a child younger than three months, none of the 13 must enter a work program under the law, so the county can't compel them to take private jobs. Moreover, Marquette has put to work--or otherwise deflected--all applicants since last June.

Local boosters attribute Marquette's extremely low welfare use in part to a work ethic that runs strong in this Norman Rockwell patch of small towns and farms scattered across south-central Wisconsin. "You know what work is at a very young age on a farm," says Judi Mayer of the Montello Area Chamber of Commerce. But welfare professionals say a key factor is the attitude of the local welfare office. Marquette's social services department has, in director Kenneth Ramminger's words, "an expectation of work." His staff knows the employers in the region, and inquiries about welfare turn quickly into referrals to local businesses that may be hiring, like Brakebush Brothers, a chicken-processing plant.

And there's Ramminger himself. "He's extremely energetic in everything he does," says University of Wisconsin welfare expert Thomas Kaplan. "If he decides his mission is that people should get jobs, I imagine little would stand in his way." Of course, with the work-eligible rolls down to zero, it may be time for him to find a new mission.

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