California Gets Ready for Welfare Cuts

Budget making for California's lawmakers has often been a fractious and difficult process. But when Gov. Pete Wilson and legislators sit down to wrangle over the state budget this summer, a gargantuan octopus-like beast of unprecedented proportions will be already looming over the state Capitol. It's known as federal welfare reform. The complex, multifaceted law has immense financial implications for both state and local governments, especially given the state's huge welfare caseload of about 2.5 million, the single largest caseload nationally. Adding to the pressure is the state's huge population of legal immigrants, a group that faces imminent cutoff of benefits such as SSI, food stamps and Medi-Cal under the new law. The federal law gives states significant flexibility in adopting responses to reform, and California's approach will undoubtedly be scrutinized by many other states formulating their own plans. In Sacramento, much of the decision-making on the massive minutiae of welfare reform has been handed over to a special bipartisan committee that was set up by both houses of the state Legislature. The committee, which is composed of nine lawmakers from the state Assembly and nine from the state Senate, must consider an array of issues, involving everything from how to find vocational training, jobs and child care for a population entering the employment system for the first time to how to help elderly legal immigrants who may have nowhere to turn to when cutoffs occur. The committee, which is expected to produce a compromise of sorts, has vowed to try to finish its huge task by around mid-May and turn its report over to the governor and the full Legislature for the final showdown come budget hearings in June. "I think the process is an extremely valuable one as an alternative to considering individually the 100-plus bills [introduced in the Legislature] on welfare reform issues," said Stephen Bingham, staff attorney for the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation, one of many groups participating in the committee process. However, some Assembly Republicans have already frustrated Bingham and others working on the special committee, because the Republicans have tried to bypass the process by introducing their own bills directly on the Assembly floor. There may be hundreds of bills. But the special committee is essentially considering proposals by four different players or groups who have weighed in with significant pieces of legislation on welfare reform. On one extreme is the proposal issued in January by Gov. Wilson, an aggressive plan that imposes especially strict work requirements on those who continue to stay on welfare under the new law. Wilson took the hard-line Republican approach that claims that welfare has become too much of a crutch for so-called welfare queens who come from generations of families trapped in a cycle of dependency. (A number of recent independent studies have shattered the myth of the welfare queen.) On the other extreme is legislation introduced by a coalition of advocacy groups that represent children and the poor. Led by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, this group will be trying to preserve the fragile safety net for the millions of poor adults and children who will be affected by the new law. An example of how these two extremes differ can be seen in their approach to jobs and workfare. Gov. Wilson's plan requires welfare recipients on caseload rolls for two years or longer to work at least 32 hours (or more) per week or face a cutoff of benefits. The Western Center on Law sticks with the less stringent federal requirement of only 20 hours a week. Somewhere in between the two extremes of the governor and the Western Center fall two other plans. One was put forth by the California State Association of Counties and the California Welfare Directors Association, the local governments and bureaucrats most involved with the implementation of the epic law on the ground level. The fourth plan was introduced by State Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill. It was an unprecedented move for the legislative analyst, who seldom proposes legislation. But the analyst weighed in on welfare reform because of the huge implications for the state budget. Some of the key policy differences in the four proposals deal with the issues of child care and jobs. The Western Center-led coalition would require significant increases in funding for the state's Greater Avenues to Independence (GAIN) program, which gives welfare recipients the vocational training they often need to get back into the workforce. The group's plan, introduced in the Legislature as Senate Bill 1232 by state Sen. Diane Watson, a Los Angeles Democrat, essentially allows all able-bodied adults on welfare to get training through the GAIN program. Currently, only a small minority of all participants get access to the program, according to Casey McKeever, a Western Center on Law attorney. By contrast, Wilson offered some additional monies for training, but it's much more stripped-down model, according to McKeever. Training could be a crucial factor in efforts to get welfare recipients into jobs because preliminary estimates suggest recipients will face a very difficult job market in California. "All the signs point to the fact that there's not enough jobs for people who need to work," said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks state tax and budget policy issues. The Western Center plan also recommends providing substantial child-care benefits for welfare moms having to leave their kids and enter the workforce. The center says Wilson's plan only provides funding for about 19,000 child-care slots, or roughly the need for just Sacramento County alone. Under the plan pushed by the county governments, the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program would be merged with General Assistance, a county-financed welfare program that serves as safety net of last resort for those who use up their welfare benefits and get cut off. AFDC has been renamed TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) under the new federal welfare law. Under TANF, welfare recipients would only get a maximum of five years of benefits in a lifetime. Counties are expecting General Assistance rolls to skyrocket because of welfare cuts. Rolling General Assistance into the state welfare program would require the state to foot part of the bill for General Assistance and protect counties from financial disaster, according to Margaret Pena, a lobbyist for county governments. The final plan of the Legislature's special committee is expected to be a amalgam of facets from all four key proposals, and its thrust will lie somewhere in between the extremes of the governor's plan and the plan of the children and poverty advocates. "I don't think any plan adopted by the special committee will have the kind of harsh time-limits that are in the governor's plan," said McKeever. SIDEBAR:The California Legislature's Special Committee on Welfare Reform, a joint Assembly-Senate Committee on Welfare Reform, was formed to examine the various proposals and bills introduced in the state Legislature.The committee has four co-chairs: Senator Diane Watson, D-Los Angeles; Senator Mike Thompson, D-Napa Valley; Assemblymember Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-San Diego; Assemblymember Dion Aroner, D-BerkeleyOther Senate members: James Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga; Patrick Johnston, D-Stockton; Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Ken Maddy, R-Fresno; Hilda Solis, D-El Monte; John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara; Cathie Wright, R-Simi ValleyOther Assembly members: Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield; Tom Bordonaro, R-Paso Robles; Valerie Brown, D-Sonoma; Bill Campbell, R-Villa Park; Carole Migden, D-San Francisco; Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles; Roderick Wright, D-South Central Los Angeles

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