California’s Work-to-Welfare Policy

October 16, 2009

California’s decision to allow a substantial number of their welfare recipients to avoid work requirements could represent the leading edge of a national movement with dangerous consequences. Whether other states are implementing regressive California-like welfare policy is not clear, but given the desperate financial condition of many states, it would be surprising if they were not.

Before more states take California’s descending path out of their fiscal problem, now is the time to clarify two serious difficulties with this regressive policy for saving money. The first is that in large part because of the strong work requirements of the 1996 federal welfare reforms, states and the federal government have developed the most successful anti-poverty policy for children in the nation’s history. The 1996 reforms required mothers to work or lose their welfare benefits. Something on the order of 1.5 million mothers previously on welfare found jobs and the resulting historically high work rate among poorly educated single mothers has remained high, although both the recession of 2000 and the current recession reduced their work rate somewhat. When poor mothers enter the workforce, almost always in low-wage jobs, their income is supplemented by a host of government benefits – including cash, child care, health insurance, and others – that boost their income far beyond the income provided by welfare alone.

It has been the combination of income from earnings and government-provided work supports that has lowered poverty among single mothers. Even through 2008 and the onset of the current recession, poverty among households headed by single mothers is around 20 percent lower than in 1993 before welfare reform. There is simply no prospect of a policy that will be as effective as the combination of work and work support for bringing these mothers into the mainstream and for reducing the child poverty rate.

An equally serious problem with the California path is that the work habit introduced to millions of poor mothers by the 1996 reforms could be reversed. The social services culture of insisting on work and demanding self sufficiency that now characterizes most state welfare programs could be damaged. Whether states will be able to recapture their aggressive orientation to work following several years of flabby work requirements is questionable. Following California’s lead will reverse nearly a decade and a half of hard-won progress against parental idleness and child poverty. No state should follow California’s lead. As Larry Temple, the head of the Texas Workforce Commission points out, mothers on welfare need job assistance “now more than ever.”