Washington Eyes California's Model for Welfare Moms

TWO unmarried California women. Both have children. Both are poor. Both are struggling to get by. Should they go on welfare or find jobs?

One woman picks welfare. She gets $607 a month from the state. She also gets Medi-Cal, so she doesn't worry about medical bills for herself or her children. She has no job expenses, like bus fare. She sits home all day watching soap operas on TV.

The other woman works a minimum-wage job cleaning an office building.

She earns $773 a month, but after taxes, it's far less. She has no health insurance. Child care and bus fares eat up $200 a month.

Which woman is better off? Eloise Anderson, director of the California Department of Social Services, says for too long, the balance was tilted against work. Now that may be changing.

California, which currently is spending $6 billion a year to support poor families with children, is trying to nudge more of its 947,000 welfare parents into the work force. Only 7 percent now hold jobs.

The California experiment, launched last fall, is being watched closely in Washington, where welfare reform is a hot topic.

The federal government currently spends a record $23 billion on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

President Clinton, who promised during his campaign to ``end welfare as we know it,'' will send reform initiatives to Congress this spring.

One Clinton aim: to induce more welfare parents to enter the work force by providing child care and job training.

California didn't wait for Washington. Instead, it rewrote its rules to encourage welfare parents to get jobs by removing laws that penalized work.

Previously, working welfare parents lost a dollar of benefits for every dollar they earned. ``We don't even tax the rich that bad,'' Ms. Anderson says. Now welfare parents can keep a portion of their benefits, even as their incomes rises.

If the California experiment succeeds, officials say everyone could benefit: the parents, who will gain self-esteem; the children, who will see the work ethic respected in their families; and the taxpayers, who could save billions.

Long term, California's plan is designed to fundamentally change the state's welfare culture. Michael Genest, deputy director of California's welfare programs, notes that while few welfare mothers currently work, 88 percent of poor, nonwelfare mothers do hold down jobs.

Getting welfare moms into the work force could break decades-long cycles of dependency in some families.

Anderson has little sympathy for those who argue that jobs aren't available, or that they pay only the minimum wage - $4.25 an hour.

She says: ``There are not a lot of high-falutin jobs, but there are jobs because if there weren't, why are all these illegal aliens coming into our state who go to work?''

She adds, ``Let's be real. What we don't have is glamour jobs. We do have [hotel] jobs. We have farm jobs. We have jobs that [some] Americans think we're too good to do. So the jobs are there.''

Some Americans have developed ``bad attitudes,'' Anderson says. If they can't get jobs paying $12 an hour, they're not interested.

Two things could nudge California welfare parents toward work.

FIRST, benefits are dropping anyway. Welfare families that collected $624 a month last year are getting just $607 now.

And since Gov. Pete Wilson (R) took office three years ago, total benefits for AFDC have been trimmed by some $6.6 billion because of budget constraints.

Second, working now is more attractive. For example, a single welfare mother of two who takes a full-time, minimum-wage job at $735 a month could wind up with $1,378, including welfare. Even though her welfare benefits are somewhat reduced, the new federal earned-income credit, plus allowances for child care, permit her to more than double her disposable income.

All this is somewhat controversial, of course. Being on welfare and working can put a person even further ahead of people who do without a government grant. But Anderson argues that getting people into the work force is the first essential step in breaking the welfare cycle.

Another key target of reform is teenage parents on welfare. In California, if they maintain a ``C'' average in school, teen parents receive a $100 bonus per report card.

Teen parents who receive failing grades are penalized $100. Graduating brings a $500 bonus.

Critics note that responsible teens who delay parenthood, work hard, and earn their diploma get no bonus, while those who have children out of wedlock are rewarded. But Anderson says the money is well spent.

``We believe $500 is a deterrent to paying a lot more money,'' she says. ``We're saying, `If you finish school, there's a little bit extra here, because we know if we can get you out of high school, we probably won't see you on welfare.'

``So the $500 ... will have long-term benefits,'' she says.

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