State Issues

ichael Herald: A defense of the welfare system

State Senate Republicans are proposing, as a major cost-savings measure to try to bring the California budget out from a deficit situation, reforming the CALWORKS program. As Michael Herald wrote his piece, he responded item by item to Sen. JeffDenham's points.

DENHAM: Lost in all the rhetoric and false accusations about the Governor's proposal to reform CALWORKS (the state's welfare system) are the facts. While the liberal Democrat leadership of the Senate and Assembly try to portray this proposal conforming to federal law as somehow throwing single mothers and kids out into the streets, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Let's look at the facts about the proposal to reform, and we believe, strengthen, the CALWORKS system: 1. The only people "thrown off" off welfare (after still being allowed on it for 5 years!) will be felons, illegal aliens, and persons who don't comply with such "draconian rules" as trying to find a job. Let me repeat - the reform we are seeking that the liberal Democrats oppose merely seeks to end the gravy-train of felons and illegal aliens after five years. For the first five years we can't even touch them. Quite frankly, this five-year free ride for law breakers is still too much but we can only imagine the "outrage" if we proposed reforming this "entitlement" any further.

HERALD RESPONSE: The Democrats in the Legislature are hardly out on a limb on this since they are protecting the legacy of that great liberal, former Governor Pete Wilson, who proposed that all children be provided aid in 1997 (before any democrat). Maybe Pete knew what he was doing.

Mr. Denham's comments about recipients as law breakers are undignified and paint a caricature of the families. One would hope for more than that from our elected officials. The reason why families don't work are varied and it is not as simple as people just don't want to work. They are certainly not law breakers. Data shows that lack of child care and lack of transportation are the main reason why people can't work. But other families have more serious problems like domestic violence, mental health issues, low educational levels and lack of work experience. Kicking the entire family off aid won't fix any of these problems. Contrary to Mr. Denham's statements illegal aliens are not eligible for aid and families can (and are) penalized at any time during the five years on aid.

DENHAM: 2. This CALWORKS reform was not diabolically devised by the 15 Republican members of the State Senate, but rather it was proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger in January of this year. He based it on a federal mandate enacted by President William Jefferson Clinton back in 1996. The irony here is that this so-called heartless, harsh and mean-spirited welfare reform proposal was signed into law by the liberal Democrats' own hero. So if the liberal Democrat leaders of the Senate and Assembly have anyone to blame, they might want to direct their anger at the former President from Arkansas.

HERALD RESPONSE: This assertion is confusing since former President Clinton had nothing to do with it. Under the welfare law passed during Clinton's tenure states have flexibility to design their own program. The one designed by Governor Wilson and the Legislature is the one now under attack by the caucus. In reality this proposal was first proposed by the Governor this January. But it failed in both houses of the Legislature for very good reasons. The proposal is taken from Texas which did the same thing in 2003 with disastrous results. 155,000 kids kicked off aid, a decrease in the number of adults working enough to meet federal requirements and 45% of Texas welfare funds have been shifted to more expensive child welfare interventions. In welfare policy this is known as a denominator strategy. It brings the state into compliance by kicking off the rolls any person not complying. Last year the Administration and the Legislature took the opposite tack. They decided to solve the problem by adding families to the numerator by getting them into work and intervening with families before they get out of compliance. In LA County nearly 70% of non-compliant adults come into compliance using this approach. We should stay the course with the numerator approach.

DENHAM: 3. If California does not somehow reform CALWORKS as mandated by the federal government, the state will be fined $150 million the first year we refuse and almost $400 million the next year and up from there. 48 other states have already complied and avoided these fines. So let's see, should we protect felons and illegal aliens and lose hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, or should we do our best to reform CALWORKS and save the program for the real people who need it, such as persons who are not criminals but are looking to better their life by trying to return to work and just need a little temporary assistance? Not a tough choice for most Californians.

HERALD RESPONSE: The fear of federal penalties is overblown. Contrary to the assertion 48 states have not complied with requirements. It is impossible since the period for judging compliance won't be complete until this October. Further, the Administration's own estimates show that based on the reforms done last year (discussed above) that California will meet the federal work participation rates and avoid federal penalties. But even if that is wrong, penalties will not be imposed until 2010 at the earliest and if the state has subsequently met the work rate then no penalty is imposed. We need to keep putting families to work and not do rash unnecessary acts that only hurt children.

DENHAM: The bottom line is that the reforms proposed to CALWORKS, which could save hundreds of millions of dollars and help solve the state budget stalemate, are reasonable and are basically mandated by federal law. Welfare was never intended to be a lifetime source of income for anyone who is able-bodied and able to work - it is meant as a short-term, helping hand. The perverse twisting of this program into a lifeline for felons and illegal aliens is something that must stop. The overwhelming majority of Californians would agree. Perhaps soon my legislative colleagues will wake up and realize this too.

HERALD RESPONSE: Welfare is a short term program. Since the law was changed in 1997 more than 80% leave before two years according to data from the state. The bottom line is the Republican proposal takes more $300 million from a program that is shrinking in size not growing. Welfare used to account for 6.8% of the budget but now it is just 2%. And we spend far less on welfare in real, not inflation adjusted, dollars than we did ten years ago. The real question is why the caucus is focused on a part of the state budget that is not causing the structural deficit nor the out year problems. Could it be that they view these families as politically vulnerable and a nice rallying cry for their supporters? The funny thing is that Democrats and Republican all agree we need to get these families to work and off aid. When we work together on these problems as we did last year we can make real progress. But when we resort to name calling and caricature, we get stalemate.

Michael Herald is a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.