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Governor’s Attack on Welfare Spending: Cruel, or Wise? : In fact, Wilson’s big, ambitious ballot-box proposal raises many of the right questions--but some answers remain as elusive as ever

In an effort to wean families away from public assistance as well as to control the state’s social-services spending at a time of mounting budget problems, Gov. Pete Wilson has proposed a controversial ballot initiative to reform state welfare. The governor’s proposals, though well-intentioned, employ too little carrot and too much stick.

The efforts at reform--at motivating poor people to work--are commendable. But does California want to become the first state in the nation to cut deeply into benefits earmarked for poor children?

Wilson is right to try to rein in the state’s share of the $5.6 billion spent last year on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Right now that public assistance to poor families accounts for 5% of the state’s general fund.

The state cut welfare grants in September, but the growing burden continues to drain limited resources and threatens to consume an even larger share of future budgets because of the growing number of recipients and the shrinking number of taxpayers.

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THE SHAPE OF THE CUTS: Statistics from the state Health and Welfare Agency indicate that most welfare recipients stay on the relief rolls an average of 17 months.

Wilson would allow new recipients to receive full benefits for six months. After that, the checks would grow smaller.

Until recently, the typical welfare family, a mother and two children, received a check of $694 a month. The state, reeling from last year’s budget crisis, cut that amount to $663.

The governor’s new proposal would further cut welfare benefits immediately by 10% and lop off an additional 15% in six months to families with an able-bodied adult. These cuts would reduce the current grant of $663 for the typical welfare family, a mother and two children, to $507 per month, plus $188 in food stamps.

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THE INCENTIVE TO WORK: Wilson is right to want to reward welfare recipients who go to work. But what’s needed is a stronger work incentive that would allow poor mothers to close the gap due to cuts and then to get ahead by earning even more money each month without losing benefits.

Research indicates that once most welfare recipients get into the job market and earn enough money to really make a difference, they are more motivated to work full-time.

Can welfare mothers compete? Some women have been forced to depend temporarily on welfare because of a divorce, job loss, medical bills, lack of child care and other crises. But what about the majority of California recipients who have been on welfare three years or longer?

Two in 10 people on welfare in this state have received public assistance for 8 years or longer. Some are second- and third-generation recipients.

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This group is in particular need of training and a push toward independence. That training and push were promised in the GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence) “workfare” program. But GAIN has proven to be more expensive than expected, according to the governor, who says people remain on it much longer than the state had planned. The GAIN program is being evaluated, and it should be fine-tuned. Without a hand up, too many poor mothers will always need a handout.

Wilson also would impose a yearlong residency requirement before newcomers could qualify for full state benefits. On its face we find that understandable. But beware: The U. S. Supreme Court struck down a somewhat similar residency requirement by Connecticut in 1969 under the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

THE DEPENDENCY OF CHILDREN: Almost 70% of California’s 2.2 million welfare recipients are children. Welfare pays the bills for one out of six of the state’s children. Not all single mothers go on welfare, but there is a strong correlation between teen-age motherhood and AFDC. More than 50% of the women who currently receive welfare checks in California had their first child as a teen-ager. And last year California had the highest number of births to teens in the nation.

That’s why the governor’s best proposal is aimed at teen-agers. Cal Learn would reward teen-age parents who stay in school with an extra $50 in their monthly check. That incentive may not mean much to the average family budget, but it represents a nearly 10% boost for a welfare mother who has one child. Teen-age mothers who refuse to continue their education would lose $50 each month.

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Wilson recognizes that helping teen-agers complete school and avoid having a second baby is the best assurance for reducing their dependency. The governor deserves high marks for Cal Learn, and for his consistent support for family planning for poor women.

Too bad his other proposal to deny funding to every baby born to mothers already on welfare seems so punitive. Instead, why not gradually reduce the state maximum family size eligible for welfare from 10 to five? That would reduce some spending without being as disruptive to families.

THE NEED FOR A DEBATE: The current state AFDC population does not fit any stereotypes: It is 35.3% white, 29.5% Latino, 27.7% African-American, 6.4% Asian, 0.8% Native American and 0.3% unknown. Today, millions depend on AFDC. Solving the resulting fiscal dilemma created by that dependency requires a national and bipartisan debate.

Gov. Wilson has little faith in the Democrat-controlled Legislature to tackle this problem. But the Democrats have little choice. They must come up with their own politically palatable blend of pragmatism and compassion, or watch the governor’s initiative, warts and all, win big in November of 1992.

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The governor could reduce some of the partisan posturing by agreeing to postpone his initiative. A postponement would also allow more research on how to get people off welfare and keep them off. A better move, in fact, would be to fight this issue out in the Legislature. Broad ballot initiatives are generally unwise and are to be avoided whenever possible.

Thursday we opposed the governor’s proposal to place on the ballot an initiative aimed at enhancing his budgetary powers; these welfare proposals would be the second half of that initiative.

As it currently stands, poor children would bear the unintended consequences of Wilson’s reform. This able and humane governor certainly does not intend for children to go hungry--thus his proposal to increase food stamps by $20 a month. But in large cities in California, many welfare mothers have to spend most of their checks for housing. Recession or not, there’s no reason to think rents will also go down when welfare checks decrease.

THE NEED FOR REFORM: Clearly, the state’s grim fiscal picture requires equal sacrifice. That may require deeper cuts in welfare checks, state paychecks and tax refund checks. But for most, those additional sacrifices are, everyone hopes, temporary. Wilson’s welfare reform, because it is in the form of an initiative that would amend the Constitution, would be permanent.

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Gov. Wilson is on the right track when he focuses on trying to increase the link between welfare and work. He is right to propose incentives and penalties to encourage welfare mothers to work or stay in school.

Welfare reform must be comprehensive and coordinated--people must have training and jobs, affordable child care and basic health insurance. The state government can’t be expected to provide it all without federal and private-sector backing.

Gov. Wilson has rightly launched the overdue public discussion about reforming welfare. But a constitutional amendment to quickly plug the welfare onrush--without also opening alternative avenues for the people shut out--probably would leave taxpayers in the next decade paying for another set of costly social problems.


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