After months of partisan warfare and weeks of hard-nosed bargaining, Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law a historic reform package Monday transforming welfare in California into a program that provides only temporary aid to the poor and requires work in return for assistance.
With legislative leaders standing at his elbow, the Republican governor formally set into motion revolutionary changes in the welfare law that will affect 2.3 million people, mostly women and children, who depend on government assistance for the basic necessities of life.
“This was not an easy task, but in the end the effort produced a solution based on very sound and very equitable principles,” Wilson said. “From now on public assistance in California will be temporary, it will be a transition, it will be strictly time-limited.”
The new program, named CalWORKS and slated to take effect Jan. 1, 1998, will limit to 24 months the time that current recipients can be on aid. It also will provide community service positions for those who reach that limit and cannot find work, require recipients to participate in job searches and job training, and penalize those who refuse to accept a valid job offer.
Mirroring a federal welfare reform act passed almost exactly a year ago, the program sets a five-year lifetime limit for adults to receive aid, but at the same time it obligates the state to make massive investments in job training and child care to ease their movement into the work force.
In the first year alone, state officials estimate that $1.3 billion will be spent on child care and $530 million on employment.
Because of the investments in child care and training, the $7-billion-plus welfare program initially will not produce savings. And, in the first year, the legislative analyst estimates that welfare spending will increase by $223 million.
But the program--designed to comply with the new federal law--is expected to significantly reduce welfare rolls in the next five years and result in cost reductions.
“In a vibrant economy that creates jobs and enables entry-level workers to climb the ladder of success,” Wilson said, “we have a duty to encourage [welfare recipients] to escape from dependency to the independence and dignity of work.”
Smiling legislative leaders, many of whom only a week ago were exchanging barbs with the governor, praised the reform package as an example of compromise at its best.
“Today we put behind us politics and enacted a bipartisan welfare reform plan,” said Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno). “CalWORKS is a tough and fair plan that makes welfare what those of us in the middle have always thought it should be--temporary help to let families get back on their feet.”
Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) said the high-level bargaining between legislators and the governor had forced them to find a middle ground that “appropriately combines the doctrines of personal responsibility, market discipline and humanitarian efforts to help those who are needy.”
But amid the enthusiasm, he sounded a cautionary note, warning that the real test of their compromise would come at the county level, where the reforms would have to be implemented in the next few years.
“We hope [these] efforts will survive the next economic downturn,” he said.
Left undone in the reform package, said Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), one of the authors of the legislation, was any attempt to create the low-level jobs that welfare recipients will need if they are to leave welfare.
Even California’s current robust economy, he said, does not produce hundreds of thousands of jobs that will be needed in the coming years to provide employment for recipients who move out of the welfare system.
“I am struck by the fact,” said Assemblyman Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), “that while this seems like the end, it is really but the beginning.”
In recognition of the new responsibilities that the law places on counties, Wilson flew later in the day to Los Angeles County, which has a welfare population that is larger than the entire populations of more than half the states.
“We have a lot riding on the success of this program,” said County Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky. “We have to place tens of thousands of people into jobs in the coming weeks and months, but it can be done.”
Calling the new reform act a “testament to what happens when both parties try to find out what they have in common,” Yaroslavsky said passage of the act should not be considered a belittlement of welfare recipients.
“People who are on public assistance should not all be painted with one negative brush,” he said. “Most of the people we have on public assistance today want to work. They are productive and talented. They just need a chance and, given a chance, they will perform.”
Herman Mancera, a single father of two who appeared at the news conference with Wilson and Yaroslavsky, said that, after receiving assistance for four years, he had been able to move into a job program sponsored by United Airlines for welfare recipients.
“It feels great being able to be part of the work force again,” Mancera said.