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California to Cut Welfare Safety Net for Parents

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California to Cut Welfare Safety Net for Parents

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California to Cut Welfare Safety Net for Parents

California to Cut Welfare Safety Net for Parents

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California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has threatened to cut the welfare safety net for children whose parents aren't working, saying that the only alternative would force California to face federal penalties. But critics say the approach will not change things.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

California is facing very large federal penalties for failing to reduce its welfare roles. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had hoped to satisfy the federal government and save millions of dollars by eliminating welfare for children whose parents are not working.

But as NPR's Elaine Korry reports from San Francisco, lawmakers wouldn't go along.

ELAINE KORRY: The choice boils down to the lesser of two evils. Here's California finance director, H.D. Palmer.

Mr. H.D. PALMER (Deputy Director, California Department of Finance): If we don't make some changes to our system, the state's budget and local government's budget stand to lose hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming years.

KORRY: But Diana Spatz, a former welfare mom turned advocate, says there's got to be a better way than targeting the state's poorest children.

Ms. DIANA SPATZ (Welfare Advocate): It's the usual suspects, picking easy targets to balance the state budget - women who they'll probably portray as lazy and not trying to help themselves.

KORRY: Caught in the middle: California mothers who've reached their lifetime five-year limit for benefits - women who Spatz says are fighting unbelievable odds to provide for their kids.

(Soundbite of paper being crumpled)

KORRY: In her cramped apartment in Berkeley, Vivian Hane(ph) is making breakfast for her three daughters. They're home from school with colds.

Ms. VIVIAN HANE: Come on, Yonina(ph).

Ms. YONINA HANE: Coming.

(Soundbite of coughing)

Ms. HANE: See, you can hear this cough is really bad.

KORRY: Hane was married for seven years before her husband ran off, leaving her pregnant and with few job skills. Hane and her toddler wound up on welfare. She took three different welfare-to-work, jobs but could never get ahead.

Ms. HANE: One job was $10 an hour, and the other two jobs were $7 an hour. And I remained homeless throughout all three jobs because I never made enough money to even qualify on rental applications, my income to get housing. There was no way.

KORRY: Hane says she'd realized she'd never pulled herself out of poverty unless she went back to school and got some job skills. Now, with help from the state, she's only months away from earning a degree. But under the governor's proposal, Hane would have to quit school to take another low-wage welfare job. It may seem harsh, but some welfare experts say Schwarzenegger is just catching up with the rest of the nation.

Professor LAWRENCE MEAD (Welfare Expert, New York University): California's out of step. It's not as if what the governor's suggesting is unusual.

KORRY: Lawrence Mead, a welfare expert at New York University, says California lags behind many other states, which have already toughened work requirements. Although the education route may seem like a logical step to lift a family out of poverty, Mead points to studies that show it just doesn't work.

Prof. MEAD: Most people who go to school don't, in fact, go to work later. They simply remain on welfare. And, in fact, most people who start educational programs as part of a welfare reform activity, they don't complete the programs.

KORRY: Mead admits that some people do complete the program, and those people do benefit. But he says that brings up another issue - welfare is not supposed to be a college scholarship for people with dead-end jobs.

Ron Haskins is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He's a firm believer in getting welfare mothers to work, so I asked him about Vivian Hane. He said in cases like hers, he'd make an exception.

Mr. RON HASKINS (Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, Brookings Institution): We're not talking about 30, 40, 50 percent of cases. We're talking about a very small percentage of the typical welfare case load where mothers can profit from going to junior college.

KORRY: Haskins says there is some wiggle room in federal law for a solution that benefits everyone.

Mr. HASKINS: It would be to your advantage as welfare director and also to the entire state that this mother can complete enough education and get a job for $15 or $20 an hour with some benefits, you're never going to see her again. If I were the welfare director, I would bend over backwards to try to figure out how to do this.

KORRY: Having said that, Haskins concedes that federal law is tougher than it was before, and California will have to choose. Vivian Hane hopes she won't be forced back into a welfare job that could land her and her kids back out on the streets.

Elaine Korry, NPR News, San Francisco.

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