California’s Zigzag on Welfare Rules Worries Experts
By ERIK ECKHOLM
Published: October 6, 2009
FRESNO, Calif. — As he pressed state lawmakers over the summer to close a record budget deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lathered scorn on the state’s welfare-to-work program. He called it too lenient on the work requirement and overly generous in its benefits. At one point, he proposed eliminating it, then compromised to make it tougher.
Anna Zendejas, 20, with her son, Jesus, who was sick at home in Firebaugh, Calif.
So Anna Zendejas, a welfare recipient in a farm town 50 miles west of here, was more than a little surprised to get a letter recently saying that she did not need to work to collect her check — in effect, a return to the much-derided welfare approach that existed before a national overhaul in the 1990s.
It was no fluke. This fall, tens of thousands of Californians will be given a similar choice as the state embraces a startling reversal in some of its welfare policies for the next two years. It is a route that few are happy with, but that reflects the intersection of a recession, the worst fiscal crisis in the state’s modern history, a governor determined to slash social services, and the unplanned effects of federal stimulus funds.
Mr. Schwarzenegger did wring savings out of the state’s welfare-to-work program, known as CalWorks, and achieved a future tightening of the rules. But those changes do not start until July 1, 2011. In the interim, to save $375 million a year, the state is trimming the employment assistance programs at the heart of the welfare-to-work approach, especially subsidized child care, and suspending work requirements for a large share of recipients. Those programs were selected, in large part, because they were not eligible for extra federal money under the stimulus act.