California is again taking a leading role in welfare reform. Its new "Wedfare" approach will allow poor single mothers who must leave welfare because they have married or have returned to an estranged spouse to keep child care and medical benefits for 18 months. This incentive is the same one that is allowed welfare recipients who go to work.
Credit state Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) with this worthy change, which is intended to encourage marriage and family unity. He got the sensible notion from welfare directors, case workers and women who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children. They told him over and over: Welfare discourages marriage.
The shift centers on single-parent families. Whether created by unwed motherhood, separation or divorce, these families are more likely than others to live in poverty and need welfare. The unfortunate fact is that the helping hand extended by the government becomes a trap when a woman on welfare wants to marry.
Under previous policy, a welfare mother lost benefits when she married a working man or returned to a spouse who had a job even if that job paid poverty-level wages and provided no health insurance. For those poor families, marriage meant the automatic loss of welfare checks and Medi-Cal coverage. Should any child need to suffer merely because his or her parents marry?
The reform reduces the marriage penalty. It allows a recipient forced to leave welfare because she married to keep state Medi-Cal health benefits for her family for 18 months. She (most recipients who would benefit are poor women) also keeps child care subsidies, enabling her to work outside the home. In addition, the legislation eliminates a common source of welfare fraud: the lie that men and women live when they falsely claim separate addresses to get welfare benefits.
The measure did not take the usual route from bill to law. Instead, Thompson, a member of the Senate-Assembly conference committee during the state's tortured budget process, succeeded in incorporating the change into the language of the California budget. That approach allowed him to skirt political obstacles from both sides of the aisle.
Thompson insisted on the change because he wanted some rewards to encourage women who are on welfare to change the way they live. The legislator rightly argued that the budget contained only penalties, including still another cut in welfare checks--the fourth in four years--and the loss of additional benefits when more children are born to a welfare recipient. That, he contended, provided too much stick and no carrot to encourage recipients to leave welfare.
Thompson, whose father was a county welfare director, pushed "Wedfare" as a way to strengthen families, to reduce welfare dependence that extends sometimes for generations and to give children a better start. He's on the right track.
This change, however, isn't a cure-all. No one in Sacramento knows how many families will benefit. Perhaps a modest few; perhaps many more. Whatever the result, the incentive is worth trying. It is another incremental step in the state's fight to reduce the welfare rolls.
Remember: The point of welfare is to help get people on their feet. Washington should take note of California's "Wedfare" when the debate on national welfare reform finally starts in Congress.