Unreformed Welfare: California's Armegeddon

Welfare in America is a classic example of government failure. The combined federal, state and county welfare programs have had enormous destructive economic, social and moral consequences. In the absence of significant change, the Heritage Foundation projects their cost at $10.6 Trillion over the next decade. [1]

The initial beneficiaries of government aid were widows and orphans who had been left without means of support after the war. The annual cost for the program was about $1 Billion. [1] The War on Poverty Act of 1964 widened the net considerably. Welfare applications exploded as did illegitimate births. Marriage rates plummeted. By 1970 the cost had risen to $27 Billion.1,2 Four years after the 1986 amnesty and reunification legislation, the cost had ballooned to $170 Billion. [1]  By 2000, it was $228 Billion. [1]

A decade later, it was $994 Billion. [1] By 2012, it exceeded $1.3 Trillion. [1], [2] According to Heritage, the total cost for Medicaid and welfare amount to 70% of the federal budget. [2] The study warns, in the absence of cuts, welfare and interest on our national debt will consume 92 cents of every dollar of revenue by the end of the next decade.

In 1996 Congress proposed a series of welfare reform measures to stem the financial juggernaut. The bill signed by President Clinton imposed a 5-year lifetime benefit limit as well as a work requirement to receive aid. Caseloads in many states were halved within four years except in California which had resisted enforcing the federal requirement. [3]

Federal and state politicians have gradually expanded the welfare net and the costs.3 Excluding Social Security and Medicare recipients, over 100 million Americans currently receive monthly government support. [2], [4]

Instead of temporary assistance, as Temporary Aid Needy Families deceptively suggests, welfare has become a way of life for almost half the country’s population. Illegal immigration has had significant effects on these costs. Traditionally immigrants were ineligible for welfare benefits. The 1986 amnesty and reconciliation included eligibility for benefits.

The Center for Immigration found 43% of all immigrants in the United States for at least 20 years were still receiving welfare benefits. [5] In California, 70% of illegal immigrants and their families are enrolled in at least one federal and state welfare programs. [2], [5] The total in cash and benefits a welfare recipient in California receives from the 80+ federal and state programs is equivalent to a $17.87 per hour job. [6]

Welfare is linked to illegitimacy, poverty, addiction and crime. It is a disincentive to education, work and marriage. Welfare has turned tradition, morality and civilized society on their head. Welfare is the proverbial free lunch St. Paul abjured.

In 1996 the government was forced to reform welfare. The measure included a five-year lifetime limit and a work requirement. California resisted the federal guidelines for lifetime caps in aid. The state passed its own reforms in 1997 which included time limits and work requirement but never implemented them. [3]

In California today, if a parent exceeds the five-year federal limit, child-only benefits under the Safety Net Program allow the children to receive welfare until age 18. [3], [4], [5] Despite the federal work requirement, only 22% of California’s welfare recipients have jobs. [3], [5]

Politics and demographics are the major reasons for the continuing resistance. California has for many years been a single-party Democrat-controlled state with a population of legal and undocumented immigrants that is among the highest in the country. To-date, the overwhelming majority of immigrant voters support Democratic candidates.

A substantial percentage of undocumented immigrants are women with native-born children. 70% of these families receive welfare. [5]  Mike Antonovich, longtime Los Angeles County Supervisor, recently announced that welfare payments in 2013 for LA County’s 100,000 children of 60,000 illegal parents will exceed $1.6 Billion. He noted this did not include the hundreds of millions spent annually for education. [7]

The changes to the current welfare system proposed by Governor Brown include reducing the time limits to two years. [4] Without eliminating the child-only program, this will have only minimal effects on the 550,000+ cases and 1 million children receiving monthly CalWorks benefits. [8] Moreover, as previously noted, similar rules were imposed in 1997 but never implemented. [3]

California has a long list of costly, overlapping programs that provide benefits to individuals with incomes of 200% above the poverty line. [9] Nash Keune labels California “America’s Welfare Queen.” [4] The state has 12% of the population but 33% of the nation’s welfare recipients. The financial burden to fund these programs falls on the middle class which is now taxed at a higher rate than millionaires in 47 other states. [10] Not unsurprisingly, 4 million middle-class families and business owners have fled the state for Texas, Nevada, Florida and Tennessee. This has left a huge vacuum in the state’s tax base.

Without substantive reform, there can be no significant change in the social or fiscal calculus. Benefits for undocumented immigrant parents and their children must be reexamined. Time limits for temporary aid must be shortened and enforced. So must work requirements. Out of wedlock childbirth must not be rewarded and subsidized. Is it possible to compel individuals who have become inured to having someone else support them to support themselves? Ask your parents and grandparents. The following chart produced by the Pennsylvania Dept. of Public Welfare illustrates the degree to which the welfare state has come to dominate the U.S. economy:


Child rearing offers a heuristic model for welfare reform. Parents impose external limits to promote self-discipline in their children. Homework and chores instill a work ethic and personal responsibility. These traits are the hallmark of adulthood. Welfare aborts this normal process. It obviates the need to grow up and become independent. It fosters permanent babyhood. Welfare has nurtured a dependent class of individuals who have been sustained by an overly indulgent and tolerant citizenry.

There is, of course, an alternative. Parents encourage and reward good behavior as much as they discourage and punish its opposite by using limits and punishment. Children fight discipline and rules, the means used to guide them into adulthood. Most youngsters learn the wisdom of obeying the rules. They behave and follow in the footsteps of their parents. Most move out before their 21st birthday to make their own way in life.

Young children size up the rule makers and instinctively know how to game them. Unfortunately welfare recipients have the same incentives to game the system. The public has accepted millions of capable unmarried twenty- or thirty-year old daughters with two or three young children refusing to move out for ten, fifteen or twenty years. In addition, they expect to be housed, fed, clothed, educated without having to pay for anything.

This is the new family portrait of the United States of Welfare. It is the height of insanity to tolerate, much less to extol the virtue of a system that has proven itself to be morally and fiscally bankrupt. Welfare has brought out the worst, not the best in its beneficiaries. The system was designed by politicians for their own self-interest, not public benefit.

Millions of mothers birthed earlier generations of Americans in conditions we would consider poverty, yet they nurtured and raised their young to become productive, successful adults without any government support. It is the mother’s love, hard work and sacrifice that constitute a healthy internal model for moral virtue in life. Welfare has corrupted this process and generations of mothers and millions of their offspring as well. A glance at Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York or Los Angeles is all it takes if proof is needed.

Thoughtful recommendations to reform welfare include limiting low-skill immigration, restore the work requirement for Temporary Aid to Needy Families and apply them to all federal welfare programs, reduce welfare spending to pre-recession levels, then limit future growth to the rate of inflation, provide a portion of welfare assistance as loans rather than grants, end the marriage penalty and encourage marriage in low-income neighborhoods.  These ideas should be carefully studied and debated. Meanwhile, if California were to merely emulate the other 49 states to faithfully implement the bipartisan federal reforms passed in 1996, it would go a long way towards restoring sense and sustainability to California’s welfare policies.

R. Claire Friend, MD, is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.


1. http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/06/confronting-the-unsustainable-growth-of-welfare-entitlements-principles-of-reform-and-the-next-steps

2. http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/02/2012-index-of-dependence-on-government

3. http://www.caltax.org/member/digest/feb2001/feb01-6.htm


5. http://www.cis.org/immigrant-welfare-use-2011

6. http://dailycaller.com/2013/08/20/study-welfare-pays-more-than-work-in-most-states

7. http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2013/09/16/undocumented-la-county-parents-projected-to-receive-650m-in-welfare-benefits/

8. http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=888

9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welfare_in California

10. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304444604577340531861056966

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