Finally, after months of partisan wrangling and emotional hearings over the historic welfare reform law, the battle lines are drawn.
Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic leaders are poised for a final showdown that will turn on a half-dozen major questions that strike at the heart of their political and philosophical differences:
* How much aid should recipients get?
* How long should they be allowed to stay on welfare?
* What work requirements should be imposed?
* What work exemptions should be allowed?
* Should the state provide aid to immigrants?
* And should it share the cost of General Assistance with the counties?
The answers to these questions will dictate for years to come how California treats its poor and will carry far-reaching fiscal implications for government. Legislative leaders say welfare reform provisions could become the biggest stumbling block for adoption of the state’s $68-billion budget this year.
The rift between the political parties has grown wider as a joint legislative conference committee recently completed work on a proposal for remaking California’s welfare system and molding it to conform with federal reforms enacted last summer. The Democrat-controlled committee is expected to adopt a package of reforms this week that would clash head-on with Wilson’s earlier proposal.
The governor’s office is particularly upset that the committee has been advocating certain exemptions to work requirements, such as those for mothers of newborns and families that cannot find child care.
“The governor believes that welfare reform should be just that, changing a system of dependency,” said Wilson press secretary Sean Walsh. “We have a number of concerns as to whether the committee’s welfare proposal . . . is really trying to find alternatives or is just trying to keep the current welfare system alive.”
Democrats insist their plan is a moderate document that will achieve the goal of putting welfare recipients to work but will contain an adequate safety net to ensure that families do not slip into hunger and homelessness.
“Democrats want to help people move from welfare to work, want to make sure that the blind, aged and disabled aren’t pushed off the cliff and want to make sure children get proper child care--it’s that simple,” said Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), a co-chairman of the conference committee.
The partisan divisions are so deep that some worry Democrats and Republicans may end up in a stalemate that could force postponement of their welfare reform decisions until next year when most lawmakers are facing elections.
“I think the closer welfare reform comes to an election, then politics starts becoming more important than policy,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Brown (D-Kenwood), a member of the committee. “There is no more important time for Democrats and Republicans alike to craft a plan than now.”
Counties already have been operating in limbo because they know tremendous changes in the welfare system are coming but they don’t what they will be, said Frank Mecca, the lobbyist for the County Welfare Directors Association.
“The possibility that there would be no plan this year . . . is totally unfair to clients and it’s unfair to the bureaucracy,” he said. “It makes implementation that much more compressed and that much more difficult.”
No place are philosophical differences more apparent than in the benefit levels proposed by Wilson and the conference committee.
In California, a mother with two children can collect a maximum welfare benefit of $565 a month if she lives in Los Angeles and $538 if she lives in a county with a lower cost of living.
The committee plan would allow that rate to remain in effect.
Wilson’s proposal would require grants to be cut by 15% after six months on aid.
Both sides agree there should be some limits on the length of time recipients can receive welfare, but how long is the sticking point.
The governor, maintaining that welfare should only be a temporary crutch, proposed some of the strictest limits in the country. Democrats have proposed greater leeway to allow recipients to keep their benefits while receiving job training or treatment for mental health and drug problems.
Under the governor’s plan, any adults already on welfare could receive aid for no more than 24 months in a three-year period. New recipients could get it for only 12 months in a two-year period.
After flatly rejecting Wilson’s proposal as too harsh, the committee came up with a more detailed approach. Recipients would have three months to spend in an intense job search. At the end of that period, if they aren’t working, they would be evaluated and allowed up to 18 more months to receive training and find work.
As part of the evaluation each recipient would have to sign a contract, agreeing to whatever combination of training, treatment and job search was recommended by a welfare caseworker.
After the 18 months, counties would have the discretion to allow another six months or an additional year of welfare if the recipient lives in a high unemployment area where jobs are scarce.
Wilson and the Democrats both propose a five-year lifetime limit for families to receive aid. Both favor some safety net for families that reach the limit yet still can’t find adequate employment.
But they envision markedly different approaches.
Wilson proposes that adults in families needing aid after the time limit should receive no additional assistance, but that non-cash aid--probably in the form of vouchers for food and other necessities--should be provided for the children.
The Democrats opted for the creation of community service jobs--a proposal opposed by the Wilson administration as too expensive. If the family is adhering to its contract, aid could continue but only in the form of wages paid for community service, under the Democratic plan.
If families fail to comply with the requirements of their contract, the Democrats’ plan would provide aid to the children, but not the adults. Counties would have the option of deciding whether that aid should be cash or in the form of vouchers.
Wilson’s approach to welfare reform carries with it the underlying assumption that exemptions should only be granted in rare circumstances. But the committee took the view that families with young children should not be required to adhere to work requirements when no child care is available.
As a result, the committee proposed exemptions that were even controversial among Democrats. For example, mothers of newborns would not be required to work for up to 24 months because infant care is expensive and hard to find.
The committee also proposed allowing counties to exempt individual families from work requirements after making a determination that they had no access to child care. The exemption would apply only if the family had a child under 11.
Wilson’s plan offered no exemptions for child care problems and would allow the mothers of newborns to stay home for a maximum of 12 weeks before they were required to work.
The administration argued that there was no need for exemptions because the governor intended to invest enough in child care to make it available for all who need it. Democrats contended that the demand for child care would be so great that in some areas--particularly rural counties--there would still not be enough available.
California will be hit harder than any other state by provisions in the federal welfare act that require legal immigrants to be cut off from food stamps and Supplemental Security Income, the federal program that provides aid to the elderly, blind and disabled.
Democrats and Republicans have been unified in pressuring Congress and the president to reinstate the benefits. But so far Washington officials have only shown an interest in restoring SSI benefits for some categories of legal immigrants--primarily those who are disabled.
In Los Angeles County, that change would still leave an estimated 17,000 elderly SSI recipients who would lose aid and 105,000 more, including 26,000 children, who would be cut off from food stamps.
If the federal officials follow through with their plan, Democrats have proposed that the state create its own program to continue benefits for poor elderly immigrants and those who will be cut off from food stamps. However, the Wilson administration contends that the program would be much too costly and the better route would be to continue to pressure Washington for more federal relief.
Using dramatically different approaches, each side has tried to remedy the biggest fear of the counties: that General Assistance, the county aid program, will be overwhelmed by a flood of new recipients as people are forced to leave state and federal programs.
Wilson has urged lawmakers to simply relieve county governments of the state mandate that General Assistance must serve as the safety net of last resort and provide aid for all needy people not eligible for other programs.
But the committee, bowing to pressure from local county supervisors, proposed instead that the state assume 30% of the cost of General Assistance and the financial responsibility for any growth in caseloads. At the same time, counties that accept state financial help would have to agree to uniform statewide grant levels and to require recipients to work.
Wilson officials said they will fight that approach because it would saddle the state with huge new costs, force many counties such as Los Angeles to pay higher benefits and would not impose time limits on recipients.