Let Caution Guide Welfare Reform


It was only a matter of time before a powerful national idea found its moment of truth in Orange County. That idea, returning decision-making to localities, was a central theme in the Republican congressional revolution of 1994. While the ardor of that time has diminished, the implementation of welfare reform is a very tangible product of that time. Now, Orange County faces its own day of reckoning.

Sacramento is considering a number of separate welfare proposals for the state, and it will set the general welfare guidelines and eligibility requirements for all in California. However, in the months ahead, the Board of Supervisors will exercise substantial authority in an area where it never before has had it. Short on experience, long on power, the Hall of Administration will have considerable latitude in designing programs.

While this process unfolds, the board would do well to move cautiously. It should renounce the inflammatory rhetoric that so often surrounds the welfare debate.


In March, a local welfare task force issued a statement suggesting softening some of the rules proposed by Gov. Pete Wilson, and counseled providing more time to implement the change. The go-deliberately approach was approved by the board, with only Supervisor Jim Silva arguing for speedy implementation.

As the county approaches the welfare ques-

tion, there are two important things to keep in mind. When we hear all the talk about private initiative in place of government programs, it is well to remember that the county generally has had a poor record of stewardship of the poor. Moreover, the more than 100,000 Orange County residents who receive welfare benefits--from the able-bodied adults discussed by Silva and others to the elderly and disabled and small children--traditionally have not exercised a very powerful political voice.

The supervisors will not have to look far for political support for any sentiment to make deep cuts. However, they may have to look within to summon the political will necessary to reinforce the safety net and help the agencies that are struggling now to help the less fortunate.

Supervisor Charles V. Smith for one has urged a cautious approach to avoid having the truly needy plowed under in the enthusiasm to get on with welfare reform.

Clearly, those who can work should be moved in that direction. The county needs to take a pragmatic approach. Its political leadership should not be overly swept up in the tide. Rather, the supervisors will have to supply a county’s conscience for the disadvantaged, to act as their backstop, and to be sure that those who are down on their luck are not victimized by the culture wars.