Welfare needs to be a safety net, not a hammock

More than 10 years ago, California and the nation worked on an ambitious endeavor to enact real welfare reform by changing the system from an entitlement program that promoted irresponsibility into something designed to transition welfare recipients into the workforce.

The idea was roundly criticized by liberals, claiming that millions of children would be pushed into poverty. However, apocalyptic claims never materialized. Instead, welfare caseloads dropped 56 percent over a 10-year period. As recipients left the bread line to become breadwinners, child poverty decreased, as well–from 20.8 percent in 1995 to 17.8 percent in 2004, bringing the poverty rate for children of single-mothers to its lowest-recorded level ever.

Though welfare reform has been successful, California is backsliding. Not enough recipients of CalWORKs benefits are working sufficient hours to meet federal work participation requirements, setting California up for huge fiscal penalties. Today, less than one in four CalWORKs recipients meet federal work requirements, down from a 1999 high of 40 percent. That places California far behind other large states including New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Illinois and Ohio.

If California does not make changes, the federal government will begin imposing strict fines on California to the tune of approximately $150 million in 2008, growing to over $389 million in five years. In addition to the fines stated above, if California does not meet the federal work-participation rate, the state must increase its funding match by $180 million.

To address this problem and ensure that California does not face hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, the governor’s May Revise budget contains sensible reforms to correct California’s welfare system and get us to the 50 percent work-participation rate required by the federal government. More importantly, the changes will refocus the program by giving welfare recipients a helping hand back to work rather than just a hand out.

Specifically, the proposal implements sanctions when an adult welfare recipient refuses to comply with program requirements within three months. The proposal also allows families five years on the program without complying with the work requirement. Families can continue beyond the five years if the CalWORKs recipient works a 30-hour week and is still below the poverty level.

Additionally, the proposal limits child-only benefits–for families that include felons on the run and illegal immigrants–to five years, and requires drug offenders to participate in substance-abuse programs and stay drug-free.

Not surprisingly, some liberal lawmakers are bemoaning the proposed changes to CalWORKs, but CalWORKs was never about getting something for nothing. Its purpose–made clear to every applicant–is to transition families from welfare to the work force. Recipients are required to participate in welfare-to-work activities as a condition of eligibility. No one is being cut off without warning. They have five years to find gainful employment, or at the very least comply with education, job training and other requirements. That’s not “punitive”; it’s reasonable.

Welfare should be a detour, not a destination. And, it is our responsibility to guard the state’s scarce resources against those who would turn “temporary assistance” into a permanent lifestyle. We owe it to their children, too, lest we foster a cycle of intergenerational dependency. According to the CATO Institute, children of welfare families are seven times more likely than other children to eventually become dependent on welfare themselves.

It is not as though CalWORKs beneficiaries are asked to fend for themselves. They are provided with the tools to help them acquire job skills. Every one of California’s community-college campuses has a CalWORKs program for recipients. Recipients may receive food stamps, child care, transportation assistance, Medi-Cal and preventative medical check-ups. Social workers are available to help with family strife, substance abuse, legal issues and other problems.

Once they are employed and are no longer eligible for welfare, recipients still can be given help with medical care and child-care expenses. The system is designed to ensure that working always pays more than welfare benefits. To paraphrase an old adage, we cannot allow anyone to use the safety net as a hammock.

The governor’s reforms are a step in the right direction. They raise work-participation rates, protect the state from hundreds of millions in federal penalties, maintain critical protections for families who are unable to work and provide an important safety net for low-income working families. We must get California’s welfare system back on track, not only for the families served by the program, but also for the taxpayers who’ll be punished financially if we don’t.

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