SACRAMENTO — Renee Cunningham doesn't know it, but she is credited as a model for the welfare overhaul that Gov. Pete Wilson announced last week.
Six years ago, she was a 22-year-old welfare mother in Riverside trying to live up to the rules and raise her 5-year-old daughter. She went to classes and job interviews. But doors were often slammed in her face.
One day her social worker threatened to cut off her aid. Exasperated, she fumed: "Go ahead!" Instead, she was hired.
"It is a tremendous difference," said Cunningham, now 28 and working at the Riverside cable television company that hired her six years ago. "When I was on welfare, it was like I was stuck."
Cunningham told her story to the governor when he visited her company two years ago. Today, Wilson aides say the governor remembers with admiration the accounts of Cunningham and a few other welfare mothers who have told him of their struggles and achievements.
Those stories, together with firm ideas about the value of work and the dependency fostered by welfare, have gone a long way in shaping Wilson's opinion of life on welfare and the solutions to poverty, aides say. On Thursday he unveiled a comprehensive reform proposal with controversial eligibility restrictions, time limits and benefit cuts.
And to understand Wilson's motivation, it is important to see what he has learned from people like Cunningham. To Wilson, she is evidence that those who complain about the unworkable demands of a strict welfare system could one day be thankful for that discipline.
And it is the voice he hears today when a host of critics are loudly condemning some of his toughest proposals--such as an unprecedented plan to cut off assistance to new welfare recipients after just one year.
"When he thinks of what is working in California, these women are the prototypes," explained Lisa Wolf, a spokeswoman for the governor. "They conjure up the images of what he wants."
Wilson has studied welfare reforms in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Michigan and Oregon. He has also watched California welfare experiments succeed and fail in places such as Riverside, San Joaquin, San Diego and Alameda counties.
In 1994, Riverside County won national attention for its success in moving people like Cunningham from welfare into jobs. On the other hand, state welfare officials released a two-year study recently that found that a program of carrot-and-stick financial incentives had failed to make a difference in welfare behavior.
Many of Wilson's latest proposals are rooted in those lessons--good and bad--learned elsewhere. But on welfare reform and other issues, aides say Wilson draws substantially from anecdotal evidence.
"When we put the plan together, we did not just look at what other states were looking at," said Eloise Anderson, the state Social Services Department director. "We looked at what does the life of a mother with one or two children look like?"
It is a subjective evaluation that leaves Wilson's critics questioning his interpretations or the extent of his exposure to the range of welfare experiences.
Welfare advocates say there are plenty of success stories--but they are only part of the welfare experience.
For many others, they say, the obstacles are more difficult, and the triumphs few. Some have drug or alcohol problems. A portion are mentally handicapped. And many are simply blocked by a lack of education, child care or jobs.
"I have also talked to a lot of people who receive welfare," said Amy Dominguez Arms, spokeswoman for Children Now in Oakland. "And what I have found is that the majority of people want to work--[but] they don't have the skills, they don't have the child care or they can't find the jobs."
As Wilson sees it, however, Cunningham also faced those problems. And he has heard the same from others.
There is Eva Rivera, a 30-year-old single mother in Riverside and former welfare recipient who met Wilson in 1994 and joined him on the dais when he kicked off his ill-fated presidential race in 1995.
There is also Trish Molina, whose story Wilson recalled in his 1996 State of the State speech.
"Trish will tell you it wasn't easy when, as a single mother with three kids, she joined our [work-training] program," Wilson said in his speech. "But it got her back in the work force. . . . Trish will tell you that her greatest satisfaction is that now, when she looks in her children's eyes, she sees their respect."
Finally, Wilson draws from the experience of his own social services director, Anderson. Twenty years ago and newly divorced in Ohio, Anderson supported her three children with food stamps and the salary she earned as a social worker by day and gas pump attendant by night.
Today, Anderson has received national attention for her criticism of welfare as a debilitating system and her hard-nosed approach to the solutions to family poverty.