An alliance between liberals and conservatives has launched a California work-for-welfare program that many experts expect to become standard nationwide.
The "workfare" program, which proponents say will save $100 million in its first year, requires able-bodied welfare recipients to work or risk losing benefits.
The Democratic-controlled legislature passed the bill overwhelmingly Sept. 14, and a spokesman for Republican Gov. George Deukmejian said he will sign it Thursday.
Objections from welfare-rights advocates have been eased or overcome by unique provisions providing job training and child care for recipients and exempting parents with children under age 7.
Experts say those elements will turn workfare into a key platform plank for Democrats weary of the "pro-welfare" label and bring the idea to other communities, including Washington.
Some welfare officials remain opposed to forcing jobs on poor parents with children of any age. Opponents of the California plan have questioned whether taxpayers will continue to provide enough money for effective job training and child care. But the objections have failed to mute the enthusiasm of workfare supporters celebrating a remarkable political triumph.
"We've done something that never has been done, and that is to bring the liberals and the conservatives together and combine work requirements with training programs," said California Health and Welfare Secretary David B. Swoap, a long-time Reagan supporter who has helped rewrite much of federal and state welfare policy in the last five years.
During a March tour of innovative welfare programs in Massachusetts, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Swoap and Democratic state Assemblyman Art Agnos spent much of their time in airport waiting rooms and restaurants working out details of the plan.
Under the bill, counties will have two years to set up workfare programs for recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) who are healthy enough to work and have children over age 6. That covers an estimated 32 percent of AFDC recipients. Those who are not required to join the program may volunteer. The state's smaller general relief welfare system, which has a work requirement, is not included in the bill.
Under a last minute compromise that ensured the bill's passage, Deukmejian agreed to spend $134 million a year for a new child-care program open to welfare and nonwelfare families. An additional $36 million will be available to set up new state-administered child-care centers in abandoned schools and other facilities.
AFDC is the largest federal-state welfare program that pays cash. Federal funds provided about 54 percent of the $14.4 billion paid to 10.7 million AFDC recipients in fiscal 1984.
Stung by Republican charges that the system encourages laziness and waste, Democrats here and in other states have become receptive to changes that might coax more people into jobs and off the welfare rolls.
Morton Sklar, former director of Jobs Watch, a nonprofit group monitoring workfare and related issues, said he thought the California bill was rushed too quickly through the legislature and may not contain enough guarantees that child care and job training will be provided. But the plan, he said, will be "very tempting to other states."
He noted that despite his qualms and a plea from Democratic state Sen. Diane Watson to block "forced labor" for welfare recipients, the bill passed 32 to 2 in the state Senate and 59 to 8 in the Assembly, both controlled by Democrats.
"California, for whatever reason, is seen as a model, and if the California Legislature, particularly with Democratic support, will go in that direction, then there is going to be much movement in that direction," Sklar said.
About 170,000 people are expected to enroll in the program annually. It provides for job counseling, supervised job searchs, job training for the unskilled, classes for those who lack English or a high school diploma and a contract listing the steps to be taken. Public-service jobs, such as cleaning up parks, will be found for those who cannot find work elsewhere.
Swoap said he expects the program to have an initial, money-saving "deterrent effect." Welfare recipients who do not wish to work or have filed fraudulent claims will drop out. But the more important element, he said, is the new opportunity for a recipient "to gain self-sufficiency for the first time."
The bill's success has added to the 48-year-old Swoap's reputation as one of the most powerful members of Deukmejian's Cabinet and one of the most influential welfare specialists in the country.
He became state welfare director when Reagan was governor in 1973, moved to Washington as a Republican staff aide and became undersecretary of Health and Human Services when Reagan became president.
In Washington, Swoap helped change the rules so that states could begin to require work for their AFDC clients. When he returned to Sacramento, he sought to take advantage of the change as other states began to experiment with workfare.
Massachusetts has been hailed for the success of its voluntary job-incentive program, providing training, career counseling and education for AFDC recipients. Able-bodied recipients who choose not to work, however, do not lose their benefits.
Sklar said workfare experiments are being conducted in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, where a pilot program is scheduled to be extended to more than 40 of the state's 88 counties by next year.
Jack Frech, director of the Athens County (Columbus) Human Services Department, said he has declined to join the Ohio workfare program because he considers it unfair, particularly in view of the low welfare payments the state can afford.
"I don't believe that the taxpayers are willing to pay for training to make people really competitive with people already drawing unemployment compensation," he added.