Tough to Do but It Must Be Done : Is Sacramento moving closer to welfare reform?


Yes, welfare reform is on the table again in Sacramento--so what’s new? This time bipartisan agreement is possible.

Democrats and Republicans--including Gov. Pete Wilson’s people--are scheduled to meet informally today to compare areas of agreement. That represents progress. No such gathering took place last year during the statewide debate over welfare because Wil- son insisted on his own approach. His proposals, contained in Proposition 165, were soundly rejected by the voters.

The Democrats have their own approach to weaning poor parents off welfare without hurting children. But they too recognize that government has to impose limits. The current debate centers on where to draw the line.


Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) has taken the lead. He comes to the table with the compassion and pragmatism that he learned from his father, who for years headed a county welfare department.

Thompson’s bill, SB 34, coddles no one. The measure, scheduled to be considered today by a Senate committee, would require participation in a work training program by every adult who was able. The state’s increasingly impressive workfare program, Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN), would get additional funding to make room for more participants, although Democrats and Republicans disagree on the funding level. Welfare recipients who refused to help themselves after two years would be required to work at public service jobs or lose their benefits. That sounds more than reasonable.

As with Wilson’s approach, Thompson’s bill would also reward teen-age parents with bonuses for staying in school. Those who failed or dropped out would be penalized. Both sides also want to raise the limits on savings to allow welfare recipients to save for houses, businesses and college educations. Again, they differ only on how much.

The Democrats, however, resist the governor’s proposed 15% slash. Benefits have been cut already by 10% since Wilson took office. Reducing welfare checks by 15% more would force a single mother of two to survive on $507 a month. That rate would push more families deeper into poverty. Perhaps there could be compromise here.

What should not be agreed to, however, is to postpone reforms because of the possibility next year that the Clinton Administration will induce Congress to approve federal reform. California can’t afford to wait for something that might never get done.

The Democrats have been willing to compromise all along; the sticking point has always been to what degree. Now Gov. Wilson and the Republicans seem willing to cut a deal. As usual, the devil is in the details. But the direction is welcome.