California joins growing trend toward asking work for welfare

Welfare recipients across the United States are finding that state and local governments are increasingly demanding work in exchange for financial grants. California has recently joined the ``workfare'' bandwagon, with the most ambitious program in the nation. California's plan is called Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN), an expensive and elaborate set of programs for helping welfare recipients into the working world. It also requires those eligible parents who don't find jobs in the commercial sector to spend up to a year in state-supported work or risk losing their benefits. The hope is to break the cycle of welfare dependency, and to save $100 million a year in reduced welfare rolls.

Art Agnos, a principal author of the plan, says, ``GAIN, in my view, represents the most hopeful, revolutionary welfare-reform program in the country. If this one doesn't succeed, nothing will.''

The trend toward work as part of welfare is growing, according to Judith Gueron, research director at Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York. In most of these programs, work is voluntary.

For example, Massachusetts runs a voluntary work program that had a strong influence on California's plan. (Four delegations of California legislators visited Massachusetts to review the program.) The voluntary approach does not qualify as workfare and is generally favored by liberals.

California joins six other states, and 17 percent of the nation's counties, in implementing workfare plans.

Most workfare programs, including one in California during Ronald Reagan's governorship, have been smaller in scale. It is not clear, according to Dr. Gueron, whether the best run among them succeed in saving money or moving people into the workforce.

California's workfare program grew from some utterly unexpected political alliances. Last spring, when the states's political factions were stymied on state welfare reform, Mr. Agnos, a liberal assemblyman, ran into conservative state Health and Welfare chief David Swoap in a Sacramento hallway. Each challenged the other to show a welfare system he liked. The result was a comprehensive plan for California that draws lessons from reforms elsewhere and deeply changes the state's welfare system.

California's plan is popular with conservative Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and GOP legislators, who have long sought a work requirement for people who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the most common type of welfare.

Leading liberal Democrats, such as Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, as well as Agnos, also supported GAIN because it gave a massive boost to welfare spending, especially for child care for working mothers.

Not all liberals welcome the program. Assemblyman Tom Bates, chairman of the Human Services Committee, calls the plan ``unrealistic, unworkable, and expensive.'' Further, he adds, it will be ``so cumbersome and such a bureaucratic nightmare that it will probably never be fully implemented.''

Andy Baron, Sacramento lobbyist for the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), doesn't like it either. He doesn't like the mandatory work requirement.

``Under federal law, workfare people don't have the rights of workers. It's almost a slave labor force,'' he says.

Mr. Baron is also concerned that workfare workers will displace public employees from their jobs. The GAIN bill has a clause barring such displacement, the strongest such clause in the nation, says Agnos. But Baron looks at the 175,000 people expected to participate in the program, and the 20 percent who will enter the workfare phase, and wonders where those jobs will come from. Most, he suspects, will be from the public sector.

The California plan applies to about a third of the half-million people receiving AFDC grants. The rest have children under the age of six (mothers are not required to participate in a work program until their children are age seven) or are exempt for other reasons.

Each individual begins the program with a thorough assessment of their history. Those who need English lessons, basic math skills, or a high school diploma to get work, get them. Then the participant moves into a combination of job clubs, aimed at coaching them on how to apply and interview for jobs and how to search for a job.

Those who don't find jobs move into a second phase -- the phase drafted by Democrats that Agnos calls ``the heart and soul of the program.'' It offers a choice of six programs to help people get training and experience they need to find work that matches the skills of the individual and the current demands of the labor market.

This could mean a three-month job in a child-care center for a woman who has never held a job and needs to get a taste of the basics of working life. Or it could mean two years of college, with books and child care provided, that a divorced mother needs to become a nurse.

The last phase is workfare -- the phase the Republicans in California sought. Only 20 percent of the participants in GAIN are expected to reach this point without finding jobs. Those who do, spend another three months job-hunting, then up to a year working in the public sector or for a nonprofit enterprise.

If a participant still has not found work, he or she will go back to the training phase to readjust their aims more realistically to the existing job market.

California's Department of Social Services estimates that in about five years the welfare rolls will drop, eventually saving taxpayers $100 million more than it costs to implement the program.

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