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Workfare Can't Work if Funds Cut Before It Gets Off Ground

January 31, 1988|LEONARD SCHNEIDERMAN | Leonard Schneiderman is dean of UCLA's School of Social Welfare

California's new "workfare" law, known as GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence), is a solid plan to give welfare recipients a chance to participate more fully in the life of the community. Unlike most workfare laws, GAIN is intended to provide adults on welfare with the training, education, child care, counseling and transportation they need to compete more successfully for jobs.

Signed by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1985, GAIN is already under way in some smaller California counties. Los Angeles County, which has 40% of the state's welfare population, is scheduled to begin the program in September.

GAIN, which will be fully implemented statewide by 1990, is an important new program. But will it ever be given a chance to work? It may very well be five years before this program will pay off in reduced welfare caseloads and lower welfare expenditures. It will probably cost more and take longer to achieve results than either the governor or the lawmakers anticipated. I'm not convinced that state leaders will sustain support for GAIN over a long enough period for the program to succeed. I fear that limited resources and the desire for quick results will undermine support and move us backward to an unproductive, punitive approach to welfare.

If so, it wouldn't be the first time that a well-motivated, well-designed effort at social reform was not allowed sufficient time to work before it was declared a failure.

GAIN is the product of genuine bipartisan leadership from both the governor and the Legislature. Yet now, more than two years before the program is scheduled for full implementation, financial support is beginning to erode. Deukmejian's budget proposes to reduce the number of welfare recipients who can participate in the program by 25%. Recipients not mandated to participate may not be allowed to volunteer for the program.

Withdrawing support for GAIN before it has been tested would be a great loss because the program is a needed investment in people. In many cases the welfare recipients who would participate have not been well served by our educational, health care and employment systems. With few choices and nowhere to go, they will be with us whether or not we choose to help them. A program like GAIN can provide a second chance for these people to take charge of their lives and become participating members of the community.

Obviously, GAIN is not the whole answer to welfare dependency. The availability of jobs, an adequate minimum wage, a vigorous economy and increased child support all have roles to play in lessening the need for welfare. GAIN nevertheless provides a solid step toward a better life for the state's poorest families.

Because GAIN must make up for past failures in our educational and health-care systems, and provide child care, it is going to be costly. Measurable results are not just around the corner.

California's innovative workfare law must be viewed from a long-term perspective. Program costs and program benefits should be calculated over a five-year period, and not annually, during the first years of GAIN when costs are necessarily high and benefits necessarily low. Support must continue while the program takes root. To lessen our commitment to GAIN before it has a chance to work would be unfair to the many welfare recipients who could be helped. It would also be short-sighted and, ultimately, wasteful. The UCLA School of Social Welfare conducted interviews in five languages with more than a thousand recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and found that 85% of those mandated to participate in GAIN (those with children over 6 years old) were eager to sign up for training. More than 80% of those not mandated to participate (recipients with children under 6) wanted to volunteer for workfare. Even though these young mothers of preschool children could potentially get the greatest benefit from such a program, they may not be able to volunteer now, because of state budget constraints.

It is clear that an overwhelming number of welfare recipients want to work, want to be self-supporting. If we let them down by withdrawing support for GAIN, the failure will not be due to client laziness and lack of motivation, as we are too often inclined to believe. The failure will lie in our own refusal to deliver on the promises made in California's welfare-reform legislation.

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