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Calm Before the Welfare Reform Storm

For those who have not been keeping up with all the action on welfare reform, this is the story in a nutshell: Last Aug. 22, President Clinton signed the historic bill to “end welfare as we know it.” Since then, nothing much has ended.

Here in California, there have been studies, stacks of reports, thoughtful proposals and dire warnings. Some even have been important.

But welfare mothers and their children still are getting essentially the same benefits. So are the aged, blind and disabled. Likewise, the single adults living downtown in old hotels. Legal immigrants, too, with one exception: New applicants for food stamps aren’t getting them.

A lot of commotion, but little change.

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That said, change is coming. Gradual but gargantuan--the most sweeping change in poverty programs since, at least, the advent of Medicaid 32 years ago; probably since FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s. Except in this change, benefits will be subtracted rather than added.

Each state is charting its own course and California is stepping cautiously. It senses pitfalls ahead. Many welfare recipients, it is feared, really are incapable of working. There aren’t nearly enough jobs anyway. Initially, there could be higher taxpayer costs rather than savings.

The state’s welfare population is so huge and diverse, with so many disparate and desperate needs, that policymakers are having a tough time comprehending even the trees, let alone seeing the proverbial forest.

But as Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) puts it: “Some of us are getting antsy. Let’s get to the chase.”

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There now is movement. Last Thursday, a special Assembly-Senate committee met for the first time and announced its intention to produce a welfare plan by May.

For three hours, committee members sat beneath an imposing portrait of the late Speaker Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh and heard experts lay out the basics for shredding the once-generous California welfare system that Unruh helped create.

According to a new study by the Public Policy Institute of California, 34% of the state’s families receive some type of public relief, ranging from housing assistance to the biggie, Aid to Families With Dependent Children. An estimated 24% of households are on the main federal-state welfare programs: AFDC, Medi-Cal, food stamps and aid to the aged, blind and disabled (SSI/SSP).

Washington no longer will pay for more than five years of AFDC benefits in a lifetime. (AFDC soon will get the annoying acronym TANF, pronounced tan-uf, for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.) The feds also won’t pay AFDC after two straight years unless one parent is in a “work activity"--if not a job, at least some training. The five-year clock started ticking in November; the two-year stretch won’t begin until a new state law is enacted.

Legal immigrants who arrived after Clinton’s bill-signing will have to wait five years before they’re entitled to federal AFDC money. By August, noncitizens will be ineligible for SSI and food stamps.

Aged citizens on SSI are not affected. But some children with disabilities will lose aid.

Able-bodied citizens with no children will lose food stamps after three months unless they’re working part time.

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Naturally, there are enough hardship exemptions and fine-print exceptions in all this to fill an entire newspaper page. But that’s it in a nutshell.

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Listening to the legislative committee, I was reminded of how the politics of welfare has changed. Almost disappeared. Clinton pulled welfare from the partisan arena when he signed the Republican reform bill. I didn’t hear anybody talk about “welfare queens.”

I did hear Democrats talk about things they once would have gagged on. Like requiring community service for welfare checks. “We abhorred community service jobs. We saw it as slave labor,” recalls Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), a committee co-chair. “It shows how far people have come.” Now, such jobs may be needed to achieve the reform’s “welfare-to-work” goals.

That will cost tax dollars--as will child care, job training, bus tokens, counseling. . . . “It was a lot easier and cheaper just to give them a check,” says Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego), another committee co-chair.

But Ducheny argues for the upfront investment: “We [Democrats] want to see this work because these are our folks. We want to see them get on their feet and make good role models.”

Republicans also need this to work. It’s going to be their long-sought new welfare state, one premised on work.

Right now, however, we’re still in a confusing calm before some cataclysmic change.

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