Hope for California's Broken Welfare Programs

Hope for California's Broken Welfare Programs

As California’s 33rd governor, Ronald Reagan often stressed that welfare programs needed a purpose. Those programs, that is, needed to do more than just provide for the needy — they also needed to move individuals to self-sufficiency and make them independent as quickly as possible. He challenged the way welfare bureaucrats were gauging success based on how many people were added to welfare rolls, rather than how many left.

President Reagan’s words ring as true today as they did when he uttered them in 1968. But over the past several decades, his perspective has been abandoned in favor of policies that have transformed a temporary safety net for the truly needy into a long-term dependency trap.

Nowhere is this more evident than in California’s food stamp program. In 1996, President Clinton signed a welfare overhaul into law that requires able-bodied childless adults to work, train, or volunteer at least part-time as a condition of receiving food stamps. But California has used gimmicks and loopholes to keep as many able-bodied adults on welfare as possible. Federal law allows states to seek temporary waivers of the work requirement in areas with unemployment rates above 10 percent or with a demonstrated lack of job opportunities.

At 4.2 percent, California’s unemployment rate is at its lowest point in state history. In some cities, the rate is as low as 1.7 percent. Nevertheless, California officials argue that there is a lack of available jobs and waive work requirements for virtually all able-bodied adults on food stamps. For the next year, these work requirements will exist in just three of California’s 58 counties. 

But the reality is that employers are desperate for workers and there are jobs available at all skill levels. California employers have more than 559,000 job openings posted online and are adding 2.3 million job openings every year. And these job openings aren’t the result of an education or skills gap: The California Employment Development Department reports that nearly three-quarters of annual job openings require a high school education or less. What’s more, 87 percent of those jobs require no prior experience and four-fifths expect less than a month of on-the-job training, including hundreds of thousands that require no job training whatsoever.

California’s welfare programs should focus on moving able-bodied adults off the sidelines and back into the workforce as quickly as possible. But state bureaucrats are focused on something else entirely: keeping welfare enrollment up and trapping individuals in dependency for as long as possible.

Thankfully, there may be hope on the horizon. The Trump administration is busy rewriting the regulations that govern these waivers, hopefully moving to end the loopholes that California bureaucrats have exploited and restoring the work requirements enacted more than two decades ago.

There’s also movement in Congress to put an end to this abuse permanently. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed its version of the Farm Bill, which would crack down on loopholes and reduce the number of able-bodied adults exempt under these waivers by nearly 90 percent. The House and Senate are now debating this and other major reforms as part of the conference committee process.

This abuse must end. Work requirements are critical to moving able-bodied adults out of dependency and back onto the path toward self-sufficiency. Research shows that able-bodied adults who left welfare after work requirements were implemented in other states found work in more than 600 different industries; their incomes more than doubled on average. Californians deserve the same opportunities that their peers in Kansas, Maine, Florida, Texas, and other states have experienced.

California’s welfare programs must refocus on moving individuals to self-sufficiency and preserving resources for the most vulnerable. It’s too late to turn back the clock and prevent these programs’ missteps over the last generation. But there’s plenty of time — and now plenty of opportunity — to get it right for the next.

Jonathan Ingram is vice president of research at the Foundation for Government Accountability.

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