YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Welfare Law's Job Goal May Be Impossible


California must move nearly 1 million people off public assistance and into jobs in the next few years to satisfy new federal welfare guidelines. But the state confronts starkly forbidding hurdles that experts say may prove impossible to overcome. Consider:

* State unemployment hovers near 7%, with most of the 1 million people looking for work not on welfare, according to the state Department of Social Services. An additional 1 million people are not counted in the labor force but want to work, and there are nearly a half-million part-time workers who would like to work more hours.

* State employment forecasters project that an average of 300,000 jobs may be created annually if California continues to rebound from the stagnant economy of the early '90s. Despite the signs of economic rebirth, the current rate of growth remains lower than perhaps any other period since the Great Depression.

* Those on welfare exhibit a staggering deficiency of job skills. About two-thirds of adult Aid to Families With Dependent Children recipients are unable to pass a basic literacy test, one-half lack a high school diploma and more than 40% suffer from clinical depression, according to a recent UC Berkeley study.

If California fails to meet the federal guidelines that took effect Oct. 1, the consequences could be dire. The state must put 50% of its dependent population into jobs over the next five years or risk incurring $185 million in yearly penalties, a sum that could increase for each year of noncompliance.

"For a lot of these people the jobs won't be there and it is going to be a very bumpy ride as they try to move into the work force," said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Even many officials who support the basic thrust of the new law agree that the state faces a daunting challenge because of the rapid welfare-to-work deadlines and sheer size of its welfare caseload.

Besides financial penalties, the failure to put people to work could reap untold social distress: Under a major provision of the law, most people on welfare can receive benefits for a maximum of five years during their lifetime, after which neither the state nor the federal government is obligated to offer assistance no matter what their circumstances.

Although the state is allowed to exempt 20% of recipients from the five-year limit, experts say that category is likely to be quickly filled by those with physical and mental disabilities and other problems that make them hard to employ.

Under the best scenario, the state is likely to continue shouldering significant costs for these recipients, say experts, either through direct welfare payments or subsidized government work.

The new federal law demands that 30% of all single-parent families and 75% of two-parent households be involved in work activities by 1998. Preliminary estimates by the state legislative analyst's office show that California may be able to achieve work participation rates for all households but will have "great difficulty" in meeting the requirements for two-parent families.

The analysis concludes that after 1998, the state may be unable to meet the work participation requirements in either category. The estimates assume that the state will exercise its option to exempt parents with children under age 1 from the work requirements.

The work participation figures also include a host of activities that qualify under the federal law but do not necessarily mean someone has a job. Vocational training, job skills training and education related to employment count as work, as does secondary school education, community service and even some forms of previous work experience if sufficient private sector employment is not available. All these activities would necessitate government funding, but it remains unclear where the money would come from since the welfare overhaul limits the federal commitment.

State officials admit the challenges are huge.

"We are looking at developing statewide strategies and working with counties to come up with localized solutions that will meet local needs," said William C. Jordan, chief of the state Department of Social Services employment and refugee programs branch. "It will be a tremendous challenge, but we think we are well-situated and have good possibilities."


If the timetables, numbers and definitions seem byzantine to the average observer, they are equally so to lawmakers attempting to interpret the new landscape.

The federal overhaul of the nation's 60-year-old welfare laws giving states the responsibility to devise their own systems of public assistance has launched a furious search for answers to one of society's most vexing problems.

Most economists, politicians and social welfare experts would agree that the best solution to welfare is jobs for everyone.

But once past that premise, the debate is confused and contentious.

Los Angeles Times Articles