Pay Now or Pay Later

California wants poor mothers to depend on pay checks instead of welfare checks, but a new study shows that more than half of all Californians on welfare--nearly 57%--cannot read, write, add or subtract well enough to get a job or even train for one. If that percentage--based on a survey of the first workfare applicants--reflects all who collect assistance, then reducing welfare rolls will require more prevention and less cure.

Prevention starts with public schools--obliged to educate all comers, including youngsters from homes where parents are unable or unwilling to help. The schools in turn need the tools to succeed, and that is why Bill Honig, the state superintendent of public instruction, insists so aggressively that the state spend as much on education as other large industrial states do, and build on education reforms begun in California in 1983.

The cure starts with remedial education good enough to rescue illiterate adults from repeating years of failure. One promising approach to that goal is a computer-assisted program in San Diego that allows students to learn at their own pace, to compete only with themselves and to work independently. Remedial education is part of the state’s new obligatory workfare program, which requires welfare recipients to sign up for training and jobs or eventually lose their benefits. But the magnitude of the functional illiteracy outlined in the new study raises questions about whether the workfare budget for remedial education is adequate. Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco), an architect of workfare, is reevaluating the budget question in light of the recent report.

Taxpayers will foot the bill, but they have a choice as to when they will make the payment and how large it will be. They can pay now for remedial classes and for schools that will do the job right the first time, or they can pay later to support poor families that need public assistance year after year. Paying now would mean more high-school graduates, more taxpayers and fewer dropouts doomed to the economic sidelines.


If Californians, starting with Gov. George Deukmejian, weigh the choice carefully, they will decide to pay now rather than later. Only when schools work for all youngsters can families begin to escape the miseries and the traps of welfare.