California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's three-year lurch to the left, with the enthusiastic assistance of Democratic majorities in the state's legislature, has sent the state's fiscal situation once again into Gray Davisland -- and this time, unlike in November 2003 when he took office, the Governator doesn't have a growing economy to make getting out of the mess easier.
Finally, the state is attempting to do something about its disproportionately costly welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program.
The howls are predictable, if somewhat understandable (which I'll get to). Excerpts from a Sacramento Bee story by Cynthia Hubert lay out the situation:
Welfare benefits in California could be cut to levels of seven or eight years ago, under at least one state budget proposal.
Agencies that serve some of society's most vulnerable people are slashing staff and canceling services in anticipation of state budget cuts to welfare programs.
"It's like we're turning back the clock on 10 years of effective social policy," said Cathy Senderling, senior legislative advocate for the California Welfare Directors Association.
In the face of a woeful economy, soaring caseloads and state budget cuts that could total billions of dollars, administrators of programs that include CalWORKs, Medi-Cal and food stamps are on the verge of panic.
..... If the proposed cuts pass, welfare recipients could see their benefits drop by 10 percent. A family of three would see their monthly check reduced to about $620 – as much as they would have received in 2000 or 2001 – plus about $250 in food stamps. Social Security benefits for needy elderly and disabled people would be cut. Benefits would be cut to virtually all other welfare programs, as well.
Concentrating on the "monthly check" (Food Stamps is a separate story, but in a nutshell, what is provided is adequate), Ms. Senderling's contention about "10 years of effective social policy" has a ring of truth to it. Unfortunately, the ringing has taken place in almost every state except California, which has consistently, stubbornly, and ineffectively failed to reduce its welfare rolls in response to the landmark national reform law passed in 1996.
The cuts taking place now should never have been necessary. If it is indeed the case that "some of society's most vulnerable people" are going to suffer, it will be because of that 12-year failure, and not the currently arriving budget ax. California's press, as I observed when I posted on this a year ago (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), never-never-never touches this issue, treating it as a third rail every bit as dangerous as the national press's fear- and entitlement-driven handling of Social Security.
Consider these facts:
- In 1996, the Golden State's share of the national caseload was just under 20%, and just over 21% of total recipients.
- As of June 2008, those percentages were 29.3% and 30.7%, respectively.
- Since December 2003, shortly after Schwarzenegger took office, California's caseload and recipients have increased by roughly 42,000 and 118,000, respectively. The rest of the country's caseload and recipients have decreased by 368,000 and 1.024 million, even continuing to fall through the difficult economy of the first half of this year (2003 data is summary form is here).
- If California's proportion of the population on welfare mirrored the rest of the country (and there's no good reason it shouldn't), an astonishing 837,000 fewer people would be receiving it. Using $700 as rough measure, based on the excerpted information, of current monthly benefits for every three recipients, the state would be spending over $2.3 billion less -- each and every year ($700 x 12 x 837,000 divided by 3). This figure is probably higher, because the average family size is closer to 2.5 instead of 3, and benefits are probably not reduced in direct proportion to the number of family members.
The fact that the state with the most singularly visible record of failing to implement welfare reform is now finally having to cut costs is very unfortunate, especially because the meat-ax approach to cuts will hurt deserving recipients while doing little to get to the heart of the problem, which is that, based on the stark contrast with the rest of the nation, too many undeserving people are collecting benefits.
The fact that Scharzenegger, as far as I can tell, still plans to run to Washington for a financial bailout is an insult to our intelligence. California's poor handling of welfare means, at least as far as that one program is concerned, that the Golden State should really owe money to the rest of us, some of it over a decade in arrears. Someone in the media should ask when that check will arrive.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.