Last week the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services slapped a $7 million penalty on California. The reason for this penalty was the state's failure to move 75 percent of its two-parent welfare families into the work force as required by the welfare reform law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996. The story behind this penalty highlights the problem with California's welfare laws and points the way to its solution.
The federal welfare reform law of 1996 allowed states great latitude in crafting welfare reform measures to suit their own unique needs and circumstances. But at the same time it required all states to adopt a simple principle--the principle of requiring welfare recipients to perform some kind of work in return for their benefits. In many states this mandate for work requirements was taken seriously. In California it was not.
Oregon's welfare reform law, for instance, tied welfare benefits to work requirements on a proportional basis: fulfilling all the required work earns full benefits, fulfilling half the required work earns half benefits, etc. In extreme cases where recipients refuse to work at all, their entire assistance grant can be withheld. This complete cut-off of benefits is called a "full family sanction." Thirty-six states have incorporated this tough sanction in their welfare laws. Welfare recipients in these states have not only tended to fulfill their work requirements, but to move off of public assistance altogether in record numbers. Oregon has reduced its welfare rolls by over 60 percent.
California, on the other hand, has enjoyed only a 22 percent reduction in its
welfare caseload since 1993, despite a robust economy. The reason is clear: the tough work-for-welfare law proposed by Governor Wilson, following passage of the 1996 federal welfare reform bill, was watered down in the state legislature so that welfare recipients who fail to work face only modest sanctions. For example, a welfare family with two parents and three children in Los Angeles, whose parents both refuse or otherwise fail to work at all, can expect at worst a reduction in their welfare grant from $829 to $611, a penalty of only $218. This does not include food stamps, which are unaffected. And even this $218 penalty assumes strict enforcement by the county welfare agency--an assumption that is often unwarranted.
Welfare can create dependency, and dependency can become a habit. Indeed, it can become a habit that is quite hard to break. Slight cuts in benefits are not enough of a motivator for people to break this habit of dependency, or to leave the familiarity of non-work for work. Stronger sanctions, up to and including a full family sanction, are clearly necessary for those who refuse to do so.
State legislators who opposed tougher work-for-welfare requirements in the current law presented themselves as full of compassion for the poor. But in fact their policies are harmful to the poor. When welfare recipients are required to work for benefits, they are lifted up, and put on the road to self-sufficiency. To support them without asking for work in return is to keep them in an inferior position, not to mention burdening working taxpayers with the bill.
Let us be clear about the situation that has resulted in a $7 million penalty being leveled at California taxpayers: The federal welfare reform law of 1996 required that, by this time, three-out-of-four of the state's two-parent welfare families should have the two adult parents, between them, working 35 hours a week. That's 35 hours for one, or 17.5 hours each, or any combination in between. This minimal goal is far from draconian. Yet almost three years later, California's welfare system has not met it.
It has been suggested by some over the past week that Governor Davis should petition his friends in the Clinton administration to set aside California's $7 million penalty. Whatever its merits, this suggestion misses the point. The Governor's first priority should be to petition the legislature to strengthen the role of work requirements in California's welfare laws, incorporating the kind of tough sanctions, including the full family sanction, that have proved so successful in reducing welfare dependency in other states.