In Tightening Welfare, State Encourages Marriage : Benefits: ‘Wedfare’ gives parents incentive to stay together. It puts California in the vanguard of reforms.


In the final weeks of budget negotiations, legislators quietly inserted in the state’s spending plan a major revision in welfare policy that will make California one of the few states to provide financial incentives for recipients to get married.

The plan, given the name “wedfare” because of its intent to encourage marriage and family reunification, would allow welfare families to receive child care and medical benefits for up to one year after marriage or upon the reuniting of the mother and father.

The new plan takes aim at what has been considered one of the prime weaknesses of the welfare system--that it discourages marriage and reconciliation by rules that often require families to be cut off from benefits when the mother marries or the father comes back to the home after a separation.


Historically, welfare policy has assumed that because a father has an obligation to support his children, the family is not eligible for government aid if he is present in the household. In recent years an exception has been made for fathers who have a work history and then become temporarily unemployed.

Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) said wedfare will have the greatest impact on young parents who may have remained apart because they are poor and the father has no work history that would make him eligible for aid.

“Welfare discourages marriage and it discourages family unification,” said Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), the author of the plan. “What this does is strengthen the family. It helps unite or reunite a family and it adds some stability and I think we’re all a lot better off for it.”

He predicted that over time it would encourage more marriages and reduce welfare costs.

Advocates for the poor, who see the creation of the wedfare program as the only good news in an otherwise dismal budget package for welfare recipients, called the plan a modest step toward removing the welfare “marriage penalty.” A few states, they said, have gone further by making poor families eligible for welfare whether or not the father is present in the home.

“Obviously, this is a good thing,” said Casey McKeever, an attorney for the Western Center of Law and Poverty, “ . . . but there are more ambitious and more effective ways of dealing with the marriage penalty.”

The approval of wedfare, along with several other changes adopted in preparing next year’s state budget, completes a cycle of welfare revisions that has reshaped California’s system during the last four years. And it puts California, along with New Jersey and Wisconsin, at the forefront of the states that are attempting to reform the much-criticized system.


For welfare recipients, there have been some improvements in the support they receive, but actual cash benefits have steadily declined. Cuts in grant payments, including a 2.3% reduction this year, have meant reductions for four straight years. In July, 1990, the maximum benefit for a family of three, including food stamps, was $820. When the new cuts go into effect in September, the maximum benefits, including food stamps, will be $777.

At the same time, recipients have been given greater financial incentives to go to work and, with this year’s revisions, to get married. Last year, the Legislature approved changes that encourage recipients to work by allowing them to keep more of what they earned before the benefits were reduced.

The work incentives and the gradual reduction in benefits are seen as political pluses for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who has made revisions in the welfare system one of the chief goals of his Administration. This year Democrats who attempted to stop benefit cuts were forced to compromise to save face when the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Kathleen Brown, proposed a 5% cut of her own.

“It’s very alarming to me that more and more now, we’re in a trend,” said Watson. “For the last three years we’re trying to balance the budget off of the most helpless among us, the children.”

She predicted that the change that will have a severe impact on families is one approved this year penalizing those who have additional children while on welfare. That provision, which goes into effect next January, would not allow families to collect additional benefits for children born to welfare mothers.

A mother with one child, for example, who collects a maximum monthly cash grant of $479 would have to live on that same amount even if she had another child.


After Watson produced statistics showing that contraceptives often have a high failure rate, the Legislature agreed to make an exception for mothers who get pregnant even though they had been sterilized or used an intrauterine device or the Norplant process.

Watson said she could not persuade lawmakers to also make an exception for mothers who used other prescribed forms of birth control, such as the pill or a diaphragm, that failed.

Supporters of the penalty provision said it would discourage welfare families from having additional children.

While the penalty for additional children cannot go into effect without federal approval, it is expected to have no difficulty winning the endorsement of the Clinton Administration.

* THE WILSON BUDGET: The state budget is a mirror of Gov. Pete Wilson’s wishes. A3

Welfare Cuts and Gains

The new budget awaiting Gov. Pete Wilson’s signature will affect California’s poor, especially mothers and children supported by Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The highlights:

* Marriage incentive: Mothers receiving AFDC are given an incentive to get married or reunite with the fathers of their children through the approval of a plan called Wedfare. It allows welfare families to continue receiving Medi-Cal and child care benefits for up to one year after marriage provided they meet a need standard.


* Trims: Welfare benefits are cut for the fourth year in a row, this time by 2.3%. Effective Sept. 1, the basic cash grant for a family of three drops from $607 to $593 a month. Savings to the state are estimated at $56.3 million next year.

* Additional children: To discourage additional pregnancies, mothers will be denied additional AFDC benefits for children who are born while they are on welfare. A welfare mother of one who gives birth to a second will only be eligible for $479 a month--the maximum for a mother and one child. Savings to the state are estimated at $38 million a year.

* Fraud penalties: The penalties for fraud are increased. For example, parents found to have received welfare for nonexistent children would be ineligible for aid for two years for the first offense. Estimated savings: $6 million in the coming budget year and $20 million in the following year.