San Diego — The custodian at San Diego's Service Center for the Blind works 32 hours a week without pay. He likes to work, and he likes working here. Yet he is not here by choice -- not exactly. He supports his wife and four children with welfare checks, and if he were to lose this job, his welfare payments would be suspended.
This custodian is part of a three-year-old San Diego County experiment in workfare. At a time when momentum appears to be building around the country for state-by-state welfare reform, the San Diego model is becoming a popular one in California, especially among conservatives.
Several versions of welfare reform are under consideration in the California Legislature already this year -- including one expected soon from Gov. George Deukmejian, who ranks workfare among his major goals.
It is a contentious subject that divides along liberal-conservative ideological lines. And there are quite a few Democrats on the conservative side.
The chief rival for the San Diego workfare model is the Massachusetts version -- a favorite among liberals and labor leaders. The key point of contention is whether working is mandatory, as in San Diego, or one of a set of options, as in Massachusetts.
The point of both plans is to break the grip of dependency by easing parents who receive aid to families with dependent children (AFDC) off welfare and into the regular work force. Each plan is popular in its home state, and California legislators are considering bills modeled after each of them.
In robust and largely conservative San Diego, some 30 people supporting their families with welfare checks have come to work for Warren J. Simon, director of the Service Center for the Blind.
``Everybody we've received in the past three years has been conscientious and a hard worker. No one has tried to shortchange us on hours or anything,'' he says. ``The people sent here are trying to better themselves.''
The custodian, who has been able to find only odd jobs to support his family for the past two years, likes the program, too.
``This place I really enjoy,'' he says. ``I'm really thinking about, after I get a steady, paying job, coming back here once in awhile to do volunteer work, because I really like these people.''
He adds: ''I love to work anyway.''
The custodian is not alone. A study completed last year by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation found that most workfare participants in San Diego were not only satisfied with their jobs, but felt the work they did was important to the organizations where they worked. In other words, it was not seen as make-work.
The San Diego plan began in 1982 because the county supervisors felt the welfare system was creating dependency, rather than boosting people back into the work force.
Every able-bodied parent receiving AFDC checks, except mothers with children under the age of six, is eligible for workfare here. The plan has two parts.
First, there is a three-week job-search period in which counselors show welfare recipients how to find a job and how to get it. They help them look with the aid of a phone bank. In San Diego, 46 percent of the participants have found full-time jobs this way, averaging more than $5 an hour in pay.
Those who are still unemployed after three weeks spend three months in community-service work, usually for nonprofit agencies like the Service Center for the Blind. The point is to give people meaningful work experience (some may need basic orientation in the world of work) and to have them, at least for those months, work off their benefits at the equivalent of the minimum wage.
The workfare plan limits work hours to 32 a week, leaving one day for job-hunting in the private sector.
This is not the first workfare program in California. When Ronald Reagan was governor in the early 1970s, there was a statewide work-for-benefits program that was a widely acknowledged failure. Some counties simply refused to participate, and even the most enthusiastic counties failed to make workfare save as much as it cost.
``Reagan likes the idea of stand-alone workfare,'' says Roy Koenig, manager of San Diego's program. ``We did, too.'' But the city found, he says, that workfare doesn't pay off without a strong job-search program to skim off those who are readily employable.
Whether the San Diego program saves taxpayers' money depends on how long the participants who find jobs keep them, and whether their incomes rise enough to keep them off the public dole. The verdict is still out.
State Sen. John Garamendi (D) of Walnut Grove has proposed a welfare reform bill similar to the San Diego plan, but it provides that the job search be followed by an evaluation that may lead to skills-training rather than community work. The bill died in committee last year and faces well-placed opposition led by state Sen. Diane Watson (D) of Los Angeles, who heads the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.
Senator Watson has introduced a bill of her own based on the Massachusetts method of offering welfare recipients a set of options, including job-search help, community work experience, and training programs. The key to reentering the job market, she says, is building a positive attitude toward work, and ``mandatory programs don't do that.''
The mandatory approach has a punitive, rather than constructive, character to it, in Ms. Watson's view, especially if children are cut off from AFDC because their parents are uncooperative.
Andy Baron, a Sacramento lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, uses stronger terms: ``It's a slave labor force.''
Mr. Baron also prefers the Massachusetts model. He says the San Diego approach stems from a view of people on welfare as ``a bunch of lazy bums who don't want to work.''
The real need, Baron and like-minded workfare critics say, is for the economy to provide more steady jobs that pay enough to lift people off the welfare rolls.