Amid this week's budget talks in Sacramento, lawmakers are working to undo welfare reform while professing to improve it.
The provisions of the fiscal year 2001 budget sound harmless: wage-based community service programs, expanded services for the working poor, and income-level exemptions for any car used for employment.
The long-term effects will hurt the people they are meant to help.
Four years after Congress ended the old welfare system and gave states more latitude with their welfare programs, we know what works.
The sharpest drops in welfare caseloads have come in those states where recipients are treated as adults. If you don't work, you don't get your check. Just like the private sector, a system that rewards effort and achievement and sanctions failure gets results.
California is a weak sanction state. From the beginning, the Golden State has preserved the old paternalistic notions of the Great Society. The state cannot replace families. How parents' behave is crucial to the lives of their children.
Weak sanctions are why the number of California families leaving welfare for work has been declining, from a high of 14% in 1998 to a projected 5.8% drop this year. If the state legislature has its way with the new budget, expect that figure to get smaller still.
The legislature is set to undermine these reforms with changes to the community service programs. Such programs were designed as the last resort for welfare clients. If a person could not find work in the private sector, community service could serve as a stopgap where recipients could learn valuable skills.
The proposed state budget transmogrifies the service programs into state-subsidized, wage-based work program. What was intended as a program of last resort becomes a crutch.
The new budget also redefines what a "needy family" is. The new definition raises the need standard to include people not now eligible for various state welfare programs, including job-training, substance abuse and mental health services, health care and child care — services already provided through other programs targeted for the working poor.
By expanding this definition of "needy," the state would create a higher-income eligibility standard, which would make more people dependent on the government, and smother any incentive to work. It also keeps the bureaucracy from downsizing.
Lawmakers also want to end the state's limit on the value of one car. Right now, if you are on welfare and you have a car, its value is taken into account when calculating your aid. The auto limit matches the federal Food Stamp ceiling of $4,600.
The new budget would take into account the second and third cars of the "poor." The value of the additional cars would be based on what the person paid not its market value.
Welfare is supposed to be a program you turn to when all else fails. Instead, we are talking about second or third cars. The more lenient these programs the more likely the increase in the number of people who will qualify and languish on welfare.
For some in the legislature, there is obviously an irresistible temptation to make every citizen a ward of the state. Some Californians are using their state welfare grant to pay for college. This is ridiculous, and the new budget encourages it. It would allow six hours of study time each week to be counted toward the weekly 32-hour work requirement.
Thousands of parents who work every day go to school without the added benefit of a monthly welfare check. Many of these parents work in low-wage jobs. Many legislators and welfare advocates believe welfare should assist people in getting a college degree and high paying jobs. They don't see welfare as a temporary measure, to be used in a crisis.
These same welfare activists offer all kinds of excuses for why California's drop in caseload has been slower than that of other, more actively reformist states. But large states, such as Florida, Texas and Ohio, have embraced a philosophy of parental responsibility and shown excellent results.
California isn't showing similar good results because many recipients don't speak English, as some advocates suggest. Texas, Florida and New Jersey have large numbers of recipients with limited English. Yet these states have seen caseload reductions in the range of 25% to 45%.
When states treat needy citizens as grown-ups, they create expectations. In turn, recipients learn an important lesson about responsibility. They get jobs, increase their income, and liberate themselves from welfare. And that's the real measure of compassion.