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California changes welfare system

October 7, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Thousands of Californians who benefit from welfare will no longer have to be employed.Big changes are in store for the state's welfare-to-work program. This fall, tens of thousands of Californians who benefit from the program will no longer have to be employed.

It's a stunning reversal of the state's welfare policy. Letters have started going out to tens of thousands of welfare families in California informing them of changes that could encourage them to return to habits that would be difficult to undo.

A $375-million cut over two years to the CalWORKS program signed into the budget this summer means the state can no longer help welfare moms pay for childcare, transportation and training while fulfilling their requirement to work at least 20 hours a week.

Without that funding, some families are being informed that they now don't have to work, but will still get their full checks for the next two years.

Krista Wagner hopes to be one of them, having just applied for welfare Wednesday.

"I would love to stay home and watch my kids grow up, and it's just hard being alone without my husband with me and family nearby," said Wagner.

While parents with hardships and infants have always been able to opt out of the work requirement, two large groups now qualify under the changes: those with one child under 2 years old or those with two kids under 6.

The decision is a stunning reversal, since the 1996 national welfare overhaul dramatically changed the system over the last decade from one of endless benefits to one that's work-oriented.

"It took a lot to change the message and the mindset about welfare, not just being about getting a check, but also about getting a job," said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, County Welfare Directors Association of California. "And so to reverse that is going to send quite a different message."

The reversal is especially surprising given how much Governor Schwarzenegger criticized welfare recipients over the summer.

"Eighty percent of California's welfare recipients aren't meeting the simple work requirements, yet they are receiving weekly their paychecks and their benefits. All we wanted to do is just go and reform the system," said Schwarzenegger on July 1, 2009.

But the administration says what it got for short-term savings was long-term reform.

The work requirement comes back in July 2011, with much tougher rules.

Taxpayer groups question whether changing such a successful program was wise.

"They are not on welfare for life. They actually have skills to enter the workforce. And that adds to the California economy, and they became taxpayers and member of a productive society," said Jon Coupal, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Some moms may choose to keep their part-time jobs and find other options for childcare and transportation, but that could be difficult to do under their wages.

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