Cutting CalWORKS, Schwarzenegger Channels Pete Wilson
By Viji Sundharam
New America Media
In calling for the elimination of California’s welfare-to-work program, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ensured that, like former Gov. Pete Wilson, he will best be remembered for his disdain for the state’s poor children and parents.
On Friday, the governor unveiled a revised budget plan that shreds a vital safety net for some 1.4 million needy Californians: the CalWORKS program. In part, the program allows single mothers to find childcare while they go to school to learn new skills. By eliminating it, the governor said, the state could save $1.6 billion and shrink its $19 billion deficit.
Schwarzenegger could not make good on a threat made earlier this year to eliminate another safety net -- the Healthy Families program. That state health insurance program covers about 700,000 low-income children. Requirements under the new federal health care law tied his hands on that, although he has hurt its recipients some by raising co-payments for emergency room visits from $15 to $50. But there was nothing to stop him from hacking away at other core social and health programs, such as in-home care for seniors and the sick and disabled.
One million CalWORKs beneficiaries are children. Of the remaining 400,000, 75 percent are women, most of them former victims of domestic violence. “There’s a very high correlation between women in the program and domestic violence,” noted Michael Herald, a legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
Women and children’s advocates are angry about the governor’s action. They say they know exactly why he targeted a program that will keep thousands of single mothers from bettering their chances on the job market. As Diana Spatz, executive director of the Oakland-based, statewide non-profit for low-income people, LIFETIME, put it: “Firstly, many of the people who were in Pete Wilson’s administration are now in Schwarzenegger’s. That aside, why should he care? He knows poor people have one of the lowest voter participation rates.”
As a young woman, Spatz said, she was able to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree because the welfare checks she received covered the cost of childcare. Today, she earns $85,000 a year, paying taxes that total “a lot more” than what she was once making as a cleaning woman. A nurse friend of hers, she said, also a former welfare recipient and domestic violence victim, currently makes $90,000 a year.
Many are wondering how even a fiscal conservative like Schwarzenegger could slash programs that so many vulnerable children and women depend on, especially at a time when the recession and home foreclosures have already forced hundreds of thousands of Californians into homeless and poverty. Herald is convinced California’s Democratic leaders will not allow the elimination of the CalWORKS program.
Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has already indicated he will not. “What kind of civilized society,” he said, shortly after the governor unveiled the revised budget, “maintains business tax breaks and eliminates child care?” Schwarzenegger has refused to suspend the implementation of corporate tax breaks that will cost the state around $2.1 billion.
Herald said Schwarzenegger is engaging in “political gamesmanship” by using the threat of eliminating CalWORKS as leverage to win Democratic votes on some of the other things he wants.
But in the event lawmakers do vote to eliminate CalWORKs, California, which currently has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, will be the only state without a program that provides assistance for poor children.
VIJI SUNDARAM works as health care editor with New America Media in San Francisco, covering health issues in the immigrant communities. Her national expose in 2001 on McDonald’s use of beef in its french fries won her two investigative reporting awards.