NEWS ANALYSIS : Wilson Hopes Voters Will Focus on Welfare Changes


Gov. Pete Wilson says if voters think about it, they will view the Los Angeles riots as proof that the welfare system needs to be reformed and back his sweeping ballot initiative in November.

It is a strained link--riots and welfare--and the Republican governor is not claiming that the nation's worst urban violence of this century was directly caused by the dole. But he does see a connection between government dependency, absence of personal responsibility, lack of values and brutal disorder. And he hopes voters will.

The riots have refocused the nation's attention on anti-poverty programs and rekindled the simmering debate over whether they help or hurt the poor. With Wilson's initiative, voters in the most populous state are being offered a referendum on the welfare system.

But neither Wilson nor his advisers--nor political pros aligned with either major party--are sure what impact the riots will have on public support for the proposal to overhaul California welfare and substantially cut monthly benefits for most recipients.

"I don't know that they are going to affect it very much. (But) I would doubt that they would hurt it," the Republican governor said in an interview.

Others--Republicans as well as Democrats--also are cautious in assessing the riot's effect on what is expected to be among the most controversial measures before the California electorate next fall. Only Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), a black and a veteran of many political wars, had an instant answer.

"The rioting will help the initiative," he said without hesitation. "More conservative people will turn out (to vote) because of the law-and-order issue. More gun owners will vote and they're all anti-welfare."

Most who were interviewed were torn between the theory that a backlash will develop because voters will associate welfare families with looters, killers and arsonists--and a belief that the electorate will conclude that this is no time to be tightening the screws on the poor.

"I'm kind of ambivalent," said Clinton Reilly, a Democratic political consultant based in San Francisco. "On the one hand, it does point up the need for a more activist urban agenda. . . . On the other hand, looting and lawlessness always have been abhorrent to a large number of middle-class Californians. . . . I can see the riots helping to create the kind of backlash that could benefit the welfare initiative."

But another Democratic consultant, David Townsend of Sacramento, said: "My sense of it is that somehow the rhetoric about 'let's cut welfare because these people ought to be out getting jobs' kind of flies in the face of the rhetoric about 'all the jobs are leaving California.' If all the jobs are leaving California, where are people going to get these jobs? Voters will be looking at it saying, 'There's obviously something wrong here.' "

And Townsend--echoing a well-placed Republican who did not want to be identified--added that "if you're living in San Marino, you're going to be saying to yourself: 'They've burned their neighborhoods. I don't want them burning mine. Let's not tighten down any more.' "

The more prevalent view was expressed by Republican consultant Sal Russo of Sacramento: "As long as I've been in politics, 25 years, crime always has been an important issue in California. And now with this, you're playing into Wilson's strong suit."

Wilson has denounced the rioters--as have most public officials--but has not gone as far as some conservative Republicans, including Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn, who described the culprits as rotten criminals with no conscience. The governor also stopped short of joining the White House last Monday in blaming 1960s' Great Society programs for creating conditions that spawned the riots.

"There are some Great Society programs that worked. Head Start is an example," Wilson said. "But I think it is true that some of the Great Society programs . . . did not work very well and did get us off on the wrong track.

"Part of the problem is that we have seen a deterioration in families because there was a turning away from what had been typical private sector employment--and offered as a substitute some sort of governmental employment. And it just doesn't work."

On ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley" last Sunday, Wilson praised the comments of another guest, Robert Woodson, a black from the Neighborhood Enterprise Center in New York. "People need to listen to Bob Woodson," the governor said. "What he's saying is (that) it makes less difference who is President for four years or for eight years than who is the father in a family or whether there is a father in a family. There have to be . . . values given. . . . There has to be some assistance by government to families, but essentially there has to be a level of personal responsibility, particularly on the part of parents.

"With the best intentions in the world, government may have been counterproductive. A welfare dependency that has driven people apart, that has taken males out of the family, may have very well been a destructive thing."

He also said "everybody in America should see the movie 'Boyz N the Hood' (in which) a strong father makes the difference for his teen-aged son."

Talking with The Times this week about the welfare system, Wilson said: "You've seen more and more teen-age pregnancies, more and more unwed mothers, an 83% increase in California in the decade of the '80s. It used to be that, regardless of the ethnic group, people did not just casually father children and walk away from them. Now they are doing it in all ethnic groups. And we've got a situation where you've got an awful lot of kids growing up with no male role model in the family.

"What has to be done about it is that society really has to reject it. We really have to make that unacceptable. It has become, evidently, nothing to be ashamed of.

"If people think about it," the governor added, "if they think about what causes people to go out and--without a qualm--blow someone away, or engage in the brutality of pulling somebody out of their truck and beating them senseless, or torching a neighborhood and destroying the neighborhood store, they're going to conclude that it reflects a total absence of real values. And, unfortunately, a lot of it comes back to the fact that we've got kids, through no fault of their own, being neglected from early childhood on."

Wilson said he wants to use some savings from his proposed welfare cuts to expand preventive programs aimed at the poor, such as prenatal care, children's mental health counseling, preschool for 4-year-olds and treatment of pregnant drug addicts. But his welfare proposals--particularly the cuts--are not widely popular, according to polls. And they have been attacked by many, including the Catholic archbishops of Los Angeles and San Francisco, as a "war on the poor."

The governor's initiative would cut welfare benefits 10% immediately and another 15% in six months for most families with an able-bodied adult. But it would allow recipients to keep more income from a job without losing benefits. There would be financial incentives for teen-age mothers to stay at home and in school. Women on welfare would not receive additional benefits if they bore another child.

Several political strategists said the real Achilles' heel for Wilson's initiative is not its welfare provisions, but an unrelated feature generally referred to as "the power grab." That proposal would shift some budgeting powers from the Legislature to the governor. "It's going down because of the power grab," said a Wilson loyalist who did not want to be identified.

But George Gorton, Wilson's longtime political director and campaign manager for the ballot measure, predicted--as did others--that the riots will focus more voter attention on the welfare proposals. "It gives the issue more salience and makes it more visible," Gorton said. "All domestic policy--especially inner-city policy--will be at the forefront."

Although there may be some backlash, Gorton said, "the riots will acerbate feelings about the initiative that already exist. Some feel there's not enough benefits now. Others think people ought to get off welfare. The riots will intensify feelings on both sides."

INITIATIVE CONTRIBUTORS: Utility, banking and defense companies contribute thousands of dollars for Wilson's measure. A9

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