Politics & Policy

Bye Bye, CalWORKs

Is ending cash welfare a good idea?

In the early 1990s, Bill Clinton campaigned on a promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Republicans in Congress called his bluff, and the result — the landmark 1996 welfare-reform bill — ushered in a decade of plummeting welfare rolls and declining poverty. Now California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, no one’s idea of a staunch conservative, has done Clinton one better: He has called for the end of cash welfare in California, period. 

First things first: No one should expect the Democrat-controlled state legislature to play along. Schwarzenegger made the same proposal last year and was rebuffed. Reactions to Schwarzenegger’s proposal from Democratic lawmakers were swift: “We will not pass a budget that eliminates CalWORKs outright,” stated Senate president pro tem Darrell Steinberg. “We will not be party to devastating children and families.”

Reactions from the state’s poverty-advocacy industry were even more hyperbolic: A spokesman for the Western Center on Law and Poverty warned that if the legislature enacted the governor’s proposal, “California could look like something approaching a Third World situation with children begging in the streets.”

There is something rote about these dire predictions. On the eve of the 1996 welfare reform, Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg voiced his concern that the bill would transform America into a Third World nation, leaving “children hungry and homeless . . . begging for money, begging for food, and even at eight and nine years old engaging in prostitution.”

Senator Carol Moseley-Braun trumped Lautenberg by wondering aloud whether the welfare-reform bill would prompt the widespread auctioning of abandoned children into slavery. Jill Nelson of The Nation foresaw that “working- and middle-class communities all over America will become scary, violent wastelands.” Rep. Jim McDermott made a more prosaic prediction: Within two years of enactment, the bill would “put 1.5 million to 2.5 million children into poverty.” Even the usually clear-eyed Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that the law would “have children sleeping on grates.”

None of this occurred. Child-poverty rates fell by 1 percent per year in the five years following the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, and they remain below pre-1996 levels despite the onset of a severe recession. Transforming welfare (by, among other things, instituting meaningful work requirements, setting time limits, and giving states more control over implementation) cut caseloads in half against a backdrop of falling poverty rates. In almost every particular, the critics were wrong.

That doesn’t mean that critics today making these same dire predictions about Schwarzenegger’s proposal are definitely wrong — it just means that they are probably wrong. For one thing, eliminating the CalWORKs cash-welfare program in California is not the same as scrapping the safety net altogether. A number of other support programs speak directly to people’s basic needs (food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid, etc.) without relieving them of the need to work.

Defenders of cash welfare note, some of them bitterly, that the program as it stands is intended to serve as a bridge to employment — under the 1996 law, recipients are required to find work. But the 1996 bill also devolved considerable control over implementation to the states, and some states did a better job than others at reducing dependency. In 2004, the Cato Institute graded the states on their efforts and results: California, while finishing in the top 20, managed only a C.

Despite having 12 percent of the nation’s population, California has 32 percent of the nation’s welfare cases, and one reason is that California’s welfare system contains numerous loopholes and exemptions that keep benefits flowing to children whose parents have “lost” their benefits by breaking the rules or failing to find employment within the five-year time limit. Critics of Schwarzenegger’s proposal argue that two-thirds of the 1.4 million people enrolled in CalWORKs are children. The problem is that the children don’t get the checks; the parents do. As when humanitarian aid is delivered to a corrupt banana republic, the money ends up rewarding the bad actors.

Schwarzenegger will not end welfare in California, but he’s adopted the correct negotiating position in the debate. The benefits of shrinking the state’s cash-welfare system would go beyond its relatively small budgetary impact — axing the whole thing would only save $1.6 billion — and have more to do with extending the gains from the 1996 law. If California Democrats are worried about their state looking like a Third World country, they should focus more on reforming its kleptocratic public sector and less on opposing measures designed to discourage dependency.

– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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