For more than a decade, California conservatives have clamored for a “workfare” program that would require welfare mothers to work for their benefit checks.
Yet it was liberal legislators who provided the key for passage this year of California’s first statewide workfare program, requiring as many as 175,000 welfare recipients to work, go to school or receive job training in exchange for public assistance.
Approval of workfare legislation, signed into law Thursday by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, was a victory for conservatives, who attach great ideological significance to the idea of mandatory work. It likewise represented a triumph for Deukmejian, who had made workfare one of the top priorities of his Administration.
Deukmejian called the bill a ‘historic plan to free thousands of California welfare recipients from the vicious cycle of dependency.”
Although the governor commended legislators from both parties for their support, it was liberal Democratic Assemblyman Art Agnos of San Francisco who received the most praise for his instrumental role in putting together the compromise and pushing it through the Legislature.
“The governor’s signature today I think signaled the end of the disaster that we know as the welfare system,” Agnos said. “What it will do is offer the richest and most comprehensive array of programs designed to make people independent of government ever offered to the poor.”
The measure clearly bears the stamp of Democrats, who scored a victory of their own by winning approval of an expensive array of job training and child-care services for the poor--all in the name of workfare.
By abandoning their traditional opposition to mandatory work, liberal Democrats gained passage of what is easily the largest social program to aid poor people enacted during Deukmejian’s Administration.
Agnos, one of the Legislature’s most ardent liberals, contends that the program will result in the most significant overhaul of the state’s welfare system in at least a decade.
“We liberals are in favor of forcing people to do all kinds of things that we think are good for them,” Agnos said. “This program is going to be good for people and in years to come it will be seen as something that we ought to make people do.”
Although some liberal legislators tried to block passage of the workfare legislation, it had the all-important backing of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who both have longstanding liberal credentials.
The willingness of Brown and Roberti to support workfare reflects the growing acknowledgment among Democrats that Aid to Families with Dependent Children--a classic liberal program--has failed to lift many recipients out of poverty.
“This system is not working for the beneficiary or the taxpayer,” Roberti said. “Just about any kind of reform is preferable to the current system.”
Providing impoverished mothers with financial aid so they can stay at home with their children has become outdated in a society in which 61% of the women who have children under 18 also hold jobs, Agnos said.
Unlike the Great Depression era when the welfare system was born, many parents now rely on child-care centers to help them raise their children.
The liberals’ compromise on workfare also represents a concession on their part to increasing conservative pressure within the Democratic Party. In recent years, many Democratic politicians have adopted the position that welfare recipients should pay back society for the aid they receive.
Democrats such as Sen. John Garamendi of Walnut Grove, who has gubernatorial ambitions, have been among the leading advocates of workfare.
Liberals in California also are aware that workfare programs around the nation have become popular--not only among voters, but even among some of the welfare recipients who have been required to work.
At least 25 states have begun mandatory work programs and many of them have received positive reviews. So has a pilot project in San Diego.
However, the final California plan is far more ambitious than anything attempted by other states or proposed in previous years by lawmakers in Sacramento.
It is an elaborate program which, when operating fully in five years, will invest between $158 million and $260 million a year in people at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Secretary of Health and Welfare David Swoap, the governor’s principal negotiator in the workfare compromise, called the program “a model for the rest of the country” and said he expects it to begin saving money within three years.
Under this plan, known formally as Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN), able-bodied welfare recipients--primarily mothers who have children over the age of 6--will be required to look for employment.
Those who do not find jobs must choose between options such as enrolling in training programs, finishing their education or participating in workfare. Workfare will consist of community service jobs, primarily for public or nonprofit agencies. And, in theory, the work will help welfare recipients improve their job skills.
Workfare assignments have been likened by Assemblyman Agnos to college internships or field training.
In order to receive welfare benefits, recipients will have to sign individual contracts spelling out details of the program option they have selected. In exchange, the county welfare department will stipulate what services it will provide, including compensation for child care and transportation costs.
After completing the program they agree to, participants again will be required to look for work. Those still unable to find jobs will have to participate in workfare for a one-year period.
Agnos estimates that about 20% of welfare recipients will end up in this workfare phase of the program.
No longer will workfare be a program that seeks to punish welfare recipients and force them off aid by requiring them to perform make-work tasks, Agnos contended.
“Liberals have said we don’t mind workfare as part of an overall educational and training program, and I think that’s what we have created,” he said.
But it was not just the liberals who showed the ability to compromise.
Labor unions, which had been instrumental in blocking past workfare proposals, withdrew their opposition when they won a provision prohibiting employers from using workfare participants to take the jobs of regular employees.
And Deukmejian, who earlier had earned the nickname “Iron Duke” because of his reluctance to bargain with legislators, demonstrated how far he can bend to attain legislation he really wants.
Needed a Victory
The governor, who had a mixed legislative record his first two years in office, felt he needed a victory to boost his campaign for reelection next year.
First, Deukmejian agreed to back the workfare compromise negotiated between Swoap and Agnos that went far beyond a workfare plan proposed by the governor in 1983. Deukmejian this year went along with major expenditures for job training and child care. For child care alone, Deukmejian agreed to pay $63 million annually once the program is fully operating.
Then Roberti, blocking progress on the workfare bill during the last week of the legislative session, extracted from the governor $71 million more in annual child-care spending plus $36 million for development of new child-care centers.
“We put some resources in, knowing in the long run it would pay off,” Swoap said. “It’s not a matter of giving away the store.”
Roberti won a second major concession when Deukmejian agreed to extend state child-care services for the first time to “latch-key children,” those who are left unsupervised while their parents work.
Deukmejian confirmed Thursday that he intends to sign a Roberti bill bill that will provide $30 million next year for the latch-key program.
It is a significant victory for the Senate leader, who last year won passage of a similar latch-key bill only to have it vetoed by the governor.
“The Legislature wants to chalk up accomplishments, too, just as the governor does,” Roberti said. “This is an area where we could accomplish something if we could just see the other’s point of view.”
And Roberti predicted that it will be his child-care program, not the governor’s workfare plan, that will be remembered years from now.
The new workfare law gives counties three years to devise implementation plans and two more years to carry them out. But counties that want to begin a workfare program any time after Jan. 1 will be permitted to do so.
Social Services Director Linda McMahon said that even before Deukmejian signed the measure into law, her department had begun working to implement the program.
Cost estimates for the program when fully operational range from $158 million to $260 million annually. But Health and Welfare Director David Swoap said that the program will ultimately save even more money than by reducing the welfare rolls.