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California Wrestles to Make Welfare Reform Work

The great divide over the issue here shows how debate is playing out across the country.

Republican after Republican rises on the floor of California's state Assembly, firing verbal jabs across the domed hall at their partisan foes. Assemblyman Roy Ashburn (R) quips that the Democratic majority only wants to "preserve the failed welfare system."

Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D), a former social worker from Oakland, paces at the back of the hall as the verbal bombs fall. Suddenly, unable to remain silent, she seizes the microphone: "Read my lips, the Democrats want people to move from welfare to work.... [But] it is important that we do this in a collaborative way and that all proposals be on the table."

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The passion shown by the members of the California Assembly in a recent floor debate is not unique to the Golden State. Across the country, states are becoming the new political battleground over welfare reform as they turn broad changes in the system passed by Washington into individual programs affecting millions of lives.

*In New Mexico, a GOP governor has vetoed a Democratic-controlled Legislature's welfare plan.

*In Washington State, key sections of the law passed by the GOP-led Legislature were vetoed by the Democrat governor.

*Democrats and Republicans have been deadlocked in New York, home to about 10 percent of the national caseload.

Nowhere is the debate over reform more important than in California - which accounts for some 20 percent of the national welfare caseload. The key issue here is likely to be time limits. Clearly limiting the time people can receive aid, as an incentive to get them to work, lies at the center of the conservative critique of the current welfare system. Liberals have opposed fixed limits as inflexible and risking depriving poor families, of any source of income.

The federal legislation removed the entitlement to welfare, converting it to temporary assistance and setting clear targets for moving recipients into the work force. It limits a person to no more than five years of welfare during a lifetime, and to no more than two years at a stretch. But the law also leaves considerable leeway for states to shape their own plans, and the federal requirements do not determine the use of state and local welfare funds.

Indeed, there is no time limit on the use of state funds. Thus, in principle, welfare recipients here could continue on aid for more than five years, funded by state money, while federal funds are in effect shifted to other recipients.

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Pete Wilson's 'tough' plan

But Gov. Pete Wilson's (R) proposed program may be tougher than what federal guidelines demand. His plan would limit aid to only one year in any two-year period for new recipients, with a five-year lifetime limit.

The plan also cuts grants after a family has been on welfare for six months and requires mothers receiving welfare to return to work 12 weeks after giving birth.

Led by Sen. Bill Lockyer, the most powerful Democratic leader in the Legislature, the Democrats say Wilson's plan is "too harsh or punitive." Democrats share the goal of moving people into the workforce, says Senator Lockyer, but he criticizes the plan for not containing any job-training program, for failing to adequately fund child care for single parents, for too abruptly cutting off assistance, and for ending assistance to legal immigrants.

Instead, Democrats have created a bipartisan 18-member joint Senate-Assembly committee to come up with an alternative welfare-reform plan.

Along with the governor's ideas, the committee is examining several other proposals. Three either directly or indirectly reject setting a strict time limit. And all embrace the minimum of two years of continuous aid, rather than Mr. Wilson's one-year cutoff.

The proposal favored by many moderate Democrats - drawn up by the Legislative Analyst's Office - would continue cash aid after five years, though at about two-thirds of existing grant levels. A plan drafted by county governments and welfare directors would also continue aid, though in exchange for community service, combined with a job search. A third approach, endorsed by many Democrats representing inner-city communities, rejects time limits entirely.

The attempts to ease the impact of welfare reform are also reflected in proposals for exemptions from the limits. All the proposed plans, including the governor's, exempt teen parents, families with a severely disabled parent or child, and other extreme cases.

But the proposals favored by the Democrats would also provide public-assistance extensions if jobs are not available. The counties argue they should have the ability to exclude a percentage of their caseload from limits "based on demographic and economic conditions."

But the gap between the Republican proposal and the various ideas floating around the Democratic camp may not be as great as the rhetoric suggests. Wilson's plan, for example, also creates a safety net for those still left on the welfare rolls after five years: It provides aid to the children, though not as cash.

The end game

At the same time, even those Democrats who oppose the conservative vision of welfare reform recognize that they must operate broadly within the limits set by the federal law. The Legislature could fail to approve a reform plan this year, but that would push the issue into an election year.

"I don't think the Democrats want welfare reform to be the definitive issue of the '98 campaign," says Sen. James Brulte (R), a member of the bipartisan committee.

Mr. Brulte and other seasoned observers of the California Legislature agree that while the battle still has to run its course, a compromise version of welfare reform will eventually emerge.

"Somewhere a deal is going to be struck," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California Berkeley.

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