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Players and Plans Line Up for Welfare Reform Struggle : Solutions can emerge if a spirit of compromise prevails

Gov. Pete Wilson and the California Legislature need to agree during this session on how to get at least 700,000 poor adults, primarily single mothers, off welfare in order to meet Washington’s new deadlines and before multimillion-dollar penalties reduce federal block grants to the state. That monumental challenge will be immensely more difficult if the debate bogs down in an ideological battle. The only way to success lies in substantive discussion of what can work best in California.

There are thoughtful players on both sides, some merit in competing proposals and broad agreement that welfare should be temporary assistance and no longer a way of life. These elements can provide the building blocks of compromise in the California welfare overhaul if the governor and the Democratic leadership focus on the business at hand rather than chalking up political victories.

The Legislature’s new welfare reform conference committee, announced last week by Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) and Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), should quickly put its proposals on the table. It should continue California’s obligation to provide for all poor children who cannot depend on their parents, although the federal law ends that entitlement. Regarding time limits, the committee should embrace the federal requirement that recipients go to work within two years and reject the governor’s unrealistic proposal for a one-year limit for new recipients; the shorter time may not be sufficient for achieving the skills needed to get and keep a job.

The governor and the Legislature should quickly agree on Wilson’s proposal to continue welfare for poor legal immigrants and to provide a safety net with non-cash vouchers for children whose parents run out of welfare benefits. Grandparents who take on the responsibility of raising grandchildren who cannot count on absent or ill parents, and parents of disabled children, rightly would be exempt from the five-year lifetime maximums on welfare and the new federal work requirements.

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The governor’s proposal would allow counties to contract out the administration of welfare programs. Caution is needed because a failure in this area is more than a business write-off. The Legislature should set narrow guidelines that will both protect children dependent on welfare as well as require results from adults. Wisconsin, a pioneer in welfare reform, is attracting bids from experienced nonprofit charities like United Way and Goodwill Industries. That’s worth a try here.

The bottom line is jobs. Former welfare recipients will need to earn more than minimum wage to pay for housing, child care, transportation, medical care and other basics in California’s expensive urban areas. Many employers will need an incentive to hire welfare mothers, especially those who have never worked. President Clinton last week proposed a federal tax credit of up to $5,000 for an employer that hires someone who has been on welfare for at least 18 months. The large amount of the tax cut should win over many employers that have resisted hiring disadvantaged people. Savvy employers can learn from the welfare-to-work program of Marriott International Inc., which used government funds, strict screening and intensive training in hiring former welfare recipients, most of whom have succeeded and stayed on the job.

The bulk of the jobs must come from the private sector, but no state welfare plan should be complete without a jobs component. The subsidized community service jobs program proposed by the state legislative analyst is worth exploring. The ambitious welfare reform plan of the nonpartisan legislative analyst’s office proposes other interesting ideas that should be debated in Sacramento, such as the state takeover of general assistance, the county program for indigent adults.

Welfare reform is complicated. There are few absolute answers on how to reduce long-term dependency. California’s Greater Avenues to Independence (GAIN) welfare-to-work program has succeeded for thousands and is worth expanding, as Wilson proposes. Additional answers will emerge if Sacramento can compromise and capitalize on today’s freedom to design a new welfare program for California.

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