A Firebell in the Night

Michael Bernick
Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and former Director of the California Employment Development Department

“A firebell in the night”: that’s how Ken Auletta described the growing class of persons on welfare in America’s inner cities in his 1982 book, The Underclass.

Auletta’s view, held by many policymakers in California at the time, was that a new class of poor people was emerging, different from the poor of the past. This new group, which Auletta termed the underclass, was becoming more and more entrenched in antisocial behaviors—crime, teen pregnancy, drug addition, and most of all welfare dependency. Auletta saw the underclass as “the most momentous story in America”, and quoted Thomas Jefferson’s description of the Missouri Compromise (“like a firebell in the night”).

In a post two months ago on the San Francisco Renaissance Center, I discussed the job training and antipoverty world of the 1980s in California, and briefly mentioned the ways that conditions have improved since 1979. Among these is the work-orientation of the welfare system and drop in the state’s welfare rolls. It is worth saying a word more on this change, and what its meaning for state government.

Over the past 28 years, the fears of Auletta and others in 1982 about a growing and permanent underclass have not materialized. Welfare rolls did not increase; rather they declined. In California, CalWORKS (California Work Opportunities and Responsibility to Kids), the main program for low income families (the state’s successor to Aid to Families with Dependent Children, implemented in January 1998) saw average monthly caseloads rise to 921,011 in fiscal year 1994-995, and then drop steadily, especially after the passage of the federal welfare reform act in 1996.

As shown in the chart below, prepared by the research staff at the state Department of Social Services, even after the California economy went through its recession in 2001, caseloads have continued to be low, and even continued to fall after 2001. By the fiscal year 2007-2008, average monthly caseloads were down to 456,951.

Since fiscal year 2007-2008 and the worst recession since World War II, caseloads have risen. The current recession drove the average monthly caseload to 504,994 in fiscal year 2008-2009. Caseloads can be expected to rise also in the 2009-2010 year, as unemployment continues its rates unprecedented since World War II. However, even as they rise, caseloads will be well below the levels of the previous decades.

The trend toward welfare roll increases, seen as inexorable in the California of the early 1980s, did turn around. This turnabout was due to several factors, the greatest of which was federal welfare reform of 1996, and the cultural shift it led to among legislators, the public, and most of all practioners in the welfare system. The 1996 welfare reform instituted work requirements for most welfare recipients. More importantly, it changed expectations. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, the state’s largest social services department, in a relatively short time went from a benefits-oriented department to one of job-orientation, with the theme of “A job, a better job, a career.”

Frank Mecca knows as much as anyone about how welfare and social service agencies operate in Calilfornia. He has been involved in welfare policy in Sacramento since 1991, and for many years has been the executive director of the California Welfare Directors Association. He has seen the culture change among his members, the county welfare departments, and knows what a monumental task it has been. Today, he explains, his members not only have bought into the work-oriented system, but are fighting to keep the work supports.

The welfare system today in California works better for recipients, staff and taxpayers, than the system of thirty years ago. Government systems can be improved as we go beyond the old justifications and ways of seeing the world. Welfare reform is a complicated and multi-layed story in California, though at its core it is the story of a firebell that did not ring.

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