SACRAMENTO — The bitter welfare battles that gripped American politics two decades ago were replayed in Sacramento this week, where a dispute over how hard the government should push poor people to rejoin the workforce threatened to derail the state budget plan awaiting the governor's signature.
The debate was as much about ideology as finances, and it carried particular weight in California, which has one-third of the country's welfare recipients but only one-eighth of its total population.
California's welfare program has shrunk since President Clinton made good on his 1992 campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it" by pressuring those receiving government checks to find work. But the benefits the state provides remain among the most generous and extensive in the nation, and California is one of the few states where families get monthly checks for children even if the parents are disqualified for not working or participating in other programs.
So with the state facing a $15.7-billion deficit this year, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed for welfare cuts and changes "built on President Clinton's framework." But legislative Democrats were unmoved by references to a party icon, saying the job market is far weaker than it was in the 1990s.
"I don't think President Clinton was dealing with an economy that looked like ours today," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said during a hearing last week.
Brown and lawmakers ultimately settled on stricter work requirements with some exemptions and no cuts to monthly checks. The agreement removed the last major roadblock for the state's roughly $92-billion spending plan, which is expected to clear its final legislative hurdles this week before it is signed by the governor.
The Brown administration said the plan will save $469 million and is still calculating how many of the state's nearly 570,000 welfare recipients will be affected.
But the agreement is merely a detente. It allows Brown and legislative leaders to walk away from the negotiating table claiming victory and on a path to finish a budget on time in a year when it is politically crucial to do so. It does not settle the question of how much of a helping hand the government should give the families of California adults who can't — or won't — find work.
Brown, who wrangled with fellow Democrats over welfare benefits he called overly generous back when he was governor in the late 1970s, is unlikely to stop pushing for tougher work rules as long as California continues to face budget deficits.
Some welfare recipients are perplexed by the latest push at a time when finding a job can be very tough, especially for single parents lacking day-care options for their children. The grants they are receiving now, they say, cover only the most basic essentials in a state where the cost of living can seem outrageously high.
Richard Rigaud, 41, of Inglewood says he receives just over $600 a month from CalWORKs, the state's welfare program. The former computer specialist says the grant allows him to pay rent on the apartment he lives in with his children, but buying them new shoes is on hold indefinitely, and toothpaste and shampoo are donated by friends who shop at dollar stores.
It's been a sharp turn for someone who used to complain that people on welfare were "lazy bums." "I don't feel like that now," he said.
Jennifer Tudor, 33, a mother of two in Sacramento, also receives about $600 monthly from CalWORKS. She can't imagine what would become of her family if California were to cut grants to levels seen in states like Oklahoma, where a friend of hers with four children receives only $300 a month from the welfare program.
"That's how much my rent is," Tudor said. "I would have nothing to eat with."
During the Clinton administration, states began overhauling their welfare programs to push people on public assistance back into the job market. In California, welfare rolls plummeted from about 900,000 families in 1996 to 463,000 families by the end of 2007.
But unlike most states, which began kicking entire families off welfare if parents failed to meet work requirements, California continued to pay reduced benefits until all the family members reached their 18th birthday.
LaDonna Pavetti, who studies welfare at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., said lawmakers here have long resisted cutting as deeply as in other states. "They have, in the process, protected people from really deep poverty," she said.
Brown has pushed to make California less of an outlier, saying the state could not afford such generosity. In budget discussions, he sought to save $880 million with tighter work requirements and time limits for welfare recipients. Nearly half of those on the welfare rolls — about 284,000 families — would have had their benefits cut deeply.
Republicans applauded the plan. "We have an over-generous program that encourages people to stay on welfare," said Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee), vice chairman of the Assembly Human Services Committee.
Brown's push made for a tense few weeks in Sacramento, and top Democratic lawmakers pledged to draw a line. They said they didn't understand why Brown would want to stake his legacy on slashing a central piece of the state's social safety net.
The governor ultimately agreed to a plan that creates stricter requirements for welfare benefits but doesn't cut monthly grants. There are also some exceptions — counties will be able to cut welfare recipients some slack if their time limit is approaching but they are close to finishing job-training programs.
Brown said in a statement that the agreement will "permanently reform welfare." But Dion Aroner, a lobbyist who served as an assemblywoman in the late 1990s when welfare was being overhauled, said the program will remain largely the same.
"It's a change, but I don't think it's a reform," she said.
Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.