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GOV. TO SEEK CUTS IN AID TO FAMILIES ON WELFARE

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will propose a major rollback of the state’s welfare system this week, including a cutoff of aid to tens of thousands of children whose parents do not meet minimum work requirements or are in the country illegally, administration officials said Sunday.

The proposed $465-million reduction in California’s welfare budget came two days after the governor promised that his second term would feature “post-partisan” cooperation.

It was met immediately with resistance from Democrats, who expressed bewilderment that the governor would attempt to cut welfare aid to children in the same week his administration is expected to move forward with a plan to expand health insurance to many of the same children.

“It’s ironic that the governor is proposing healthcare for poor kids while taking away their breakfasts,” state Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) said of the cuts, which would affect more than 40,000 families. “Even Republican Gov. [Pete] Wilson, at the time he negotiated welfare reform, agreed that children should not suffer for the behavior of their parents.”

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The plan alarmed advocates for the poor, who predicted that eliminating the cash payments of several hundred dollars a month would substantially increase the risk of homelessness for those families.

Schwarzenegger’s proposal also would eliminate this year’s cost-of-living increase for welfare recipients.

Department of Finance Director Mike Genest, a Republican who has long favored deep reductions in welfare, noted that most states have already made moves similar to what the governor is proposing.

California is at risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds, he said, if it does not force parents to meet the minimum work requirements in the state’s welfare program, known as CalWORKS.

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“We have not been able to achieve the kind of work participation for those on the program that we would like,” he said. “We have not kept up with the track records of other states.”

The plan is one of several the governor has proposed for rolling back welfare benefits since taking office in 2003. Most of those plans have been blocked by the Democrats who control the Legislature.

The governor’s latest blueprint for CalWORKS comes at a time when Democrats, eager to work with him on his plan to expand health coverage to millions of uninsured Californians, may be more willing to bargain.

The suggested cuts also could help repair the governor’s relations with his own party.

Some Republicans in the Legislature have already signaled that they will resist the healthcare expansion, which is to be unveiled to the public today, because the state faces a projected $5.5-billion deficit. The proposed CalWORKS cuts give the governor an olive branch to offer them as he tries to push his healthcare agenda through.

Administration officials say looming federal penalties against the state -- potentially costing California $149 million in the coming fiscal year, growing to $389 million in five years -- bring new urgency to Schwarzenegger’s call to force more welfare recipients to find jobs.

State statistics show that only 25% of families receiving CalWORKS aid are currently meeting the minimum work requirements, which were created in response to a national welfare overhaul signed into law by then-President Clinton more than a decade ago.

Genest said that in Ohio, 65% of welfare recipients meet minimum work requirements and in Massachusetts, 60% do.

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One reason California’s compliance rate is so low, budget analysts say, is because it is among 14 states that continue to provide cash assistance to families even when the parents are not working the requisite hours. The safety net was put in place in the mid-1990s under Wilson. It is intended to keep families from becoming homeless.

A single-parent family with two children in such circumstances in Los Angeles gets $584 per month. Genest said eliminating that payment would give parents the incentive to work.

A recent report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which lawmakers of both parties look to for advice on budget matters, noted that in other states such sanctions have not always served as an incentive for parents to get jobs. Often, families get cut off from the system altogether.

“This proposal would lead to an increase in family homelessness,” said Nancy Berlin, the Los Angeles-based director of the California Partnership, a statewide coalition of advocacy groups for the poor. “The number of homeless families in Los Angeles with nowhere to go is already growing fast. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to increase that number.”

The welfare cuts will be part of the annual state budget proposal the governor plans to release Wednesday. That budget will also include a suspension of the annual cost of living increase for CalWORKS recipients. Such a move would cost a typical family in the program roughly $30 per month.

The cost of living increases, meant to keep cash grants at pace with inflation, have been suspended numerous times in the last two decades. Activists say the buying power of the average welfare grant is now one-third of what it was in the mid-1980s.

The governor’s welfare plan would extend to a program that provides cash grants to children who are U.S. citizens but whose parents are here illegally. Advocates said most undocumented adults work enough hours to meet federal welfare requirements even though their citizenship status prevents them from participating in CalWORKS.

The governor will propose that payments to those families be limited to five years.

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Joe Munso, deputy director for the state Health and Human Services Agency, suggested that five years was sufficient time for parents to “rectify” their citizenship status.

“We think these things move us in the right direction in terms of where we need to go to stress personal responsibility,” he said.

Advocates for the poor said such cuts would likely drive undocumented workers further underground, bring more insecurity to the lives of their children and force the families to turn to already overstressed local facilities such as homeless shelters and food banks for basic necessities.

“How far are we going to go in punishing parents before we unacceptably impoverish their children?” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Assn.

Mecca said all of the major studies he has seen on welfare suggest that increasing sanctions alone is unlikely to result in more poor Californians’ joining the workforce.

“There isn’t any good data that shows this is likely to work,” he said.

evan.halper@latimes.com


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