Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, May 24, 2021

Christine Welcher, MIPA

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Hometown
Bangor, WI

Undergraduate education
Bachelor’s degree in Scandinavian studies and sociology, UW–Madison

Professional/research interests
Labor economics and future of work

Expected graduation date
May 2021

Why a MIPA?
Before returning to UW–Madison, I was working with small-scale and beginning farmers as well as other small business owners. Being self-employed, I began to realize the long-term impacts of not having the benefits and security of a “normal job,” which led me to start researching portable benefits. Having both lived and worked in the Nordics, I knew better options were available, but I was unsure of how to customize those for an American audience.

Why the La Follette School?
Being a proud and progressive Wisconsinite, I was well aware of Fighting Bob LaFollette and his legacy. I actually looked at several policy programs and decided to come to UW–Madison because of its devotion to upholding his legacy and the Wisconsin Idea.

Career goals
One of the reasons I decided to go back to school after 20 years was to gain the analytical tools necessary to develop policy solutions that address the predicament of what I call “flex-term workers”—small entrepreneurs, independent contractors, and gig workers. During my time working with small-scale and beginning farmers, I began to realize how the lack of portable benefits packages (including, but not limited to health insurance and paid leave) and incentives to save for retirement would affect not only a large and under-represented group of workers, but ultimately the U.S. economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the rise in independent contractors and flex-term workers due to uncertainties regarding production levels and staffing needs. While many people see the negative aspects of gig or flex-term work, I believe there are many positives, including having more control over one’s work-life balance. The move to remote work has benefited those with disabilities and mobility issues and provided proof to businesses that production levels do not decrease with less supervision. Inspired by the Nordic “flexicurity” model, I believe that the precarity of flex-term work can be addressed by smart policy choices that give flex-term workers more bargaining power.

How has the La Follette School set you on the path to meeting your career goals?
One of the things that drew me to the La Follette School was the willingness to allow students to craft their experience and education. I was able to do independent studies on the Nordic model and homelessness policies which gave me a unique perspective on better design and implementation of social welfare policy for the future.

Advice for prospective La Follette School students
The program and experience really is what you make of it. Be your own advocate, and be actively involved in your education.

Most challenging La Follette School experience
Besides COVID? (Just kidding) My most challenging experience was overcoming the voices in my own head. I had been out of school for 20 years and came in extremely rusty at academic writing, calculus, reading journal articles, you name it. Even though I was behind, and did have a steep learning curve, I found resources to help me like the Writing Center and professors’ office hours. Each semester, I took advanced math and economics classes knowing I was going to struggle, but I’m so happy I did. It has been such a rewarding experience.

Most rewarding La Follette School experience
That’s difficult because I’ve been able to work on some amazing projects, but I think it was finishing my first policy paper. On the first day of my Policy Analysis class, Professor Greg Nemet gave us examples from previous years, and I remember thinking, “I’ll never be able to write like this.” I spent hours writing and re-writing and researching and re-writing. My paper may not win any awards, but I was so proud of my progress as a writer that I wanted to frame it!

How has the La Follette School changed the way you think about public policy?
I came in with more “real world” experience than most because of my age, so I understood there were always positive and negative externalities to every opportunity; however, the La Follette School has given me the tools to evaluate and analyze those options. Before it was just a “gut feeling,” but now I can prove my assumptions with analytics and a thoughtful argument.

Before the La Follette School
I have had an interesting journey so far, including owning my own Nordic tour company, organic produce farming, and consulting for small businesses and beginning farmers. I even got into state politics and ran for Wisconsin State Assembly as well as managed a gubernatorial campaign.

People would be surprised if they knew that I …
broke my leg (13 fractures and a 3-plus-hour surgery) competing in the Warrior Dash. I still have around 10 screws and an 8-inch metal plate in my leg.