Federal Welfare Reform in Light of the California Experience: Early Lessons for State Implementation of the Jobs Program


Enactment of the Family Support Act of 1988 [hereinafter FSA or the Act] was accompanied by hopes and claims that it established a structure which ensured that recipients of federal cash assistance, through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children [hereinafter AFDC] program would also receive the education, training, and support services needed to move from welfare to self-sufficiency. Upon a closer look, it becomes clear that the Act does not provide either the funding or structure to assure education and training opportunities to every family receiving AFDC. The Act provides for limited federal funding and for tremendous state discretion in shaping state work-related programs. As a result, state programs may vary dramatically in the availability and nature of services. Some programs may emphasize opportunity and choice while others will emphasize mandates and compulsion. While all states will be constrained by the limited federal funding, broad state discretion will result in an array of fundamentally different state efforts within the scope of the Family Support Act.

There is reason to believe that a state that carefully analyzes its options under the legislation and implements a thoughtful program can make genuine if modest gains in improving the employability and earnings of AFDC recipient families. On the other hand, a state which prefers to utilize the provisions of the Act to impose punitive requirements on recipients is also free to do so. A state which operates with no long-range strategy, but merely seeks to identify the easiest and cheapest way to comply with federal law, is far more likely to end up with a punitive rather than constructive result.

One possible direction for a state implementing the FSA is suggested by California’s Greater Avenues to Independence [hereinafter GAIN] program. GAIN involves a combination of work, education, and training activities for California’s AFDC population. The program has sought to operate as an “enriched” mandatory program: one which broadly compels recipient participation, but also expends significant funds for education. GAIN’s early experience suggests the limits of this strategy and indicates a number of other issues likely to arise in the development of state programs. In particular, under the FSA states must choose between broader participation or higher quality services. This choice will have a critical effect in determining whether recipients truly have access to “education and training.”

This Article discusses the breadth of state discretion in implementing the work, education, and training provisions of the FSA and, based on California’s experience with GAIN, suggests some steps states can take to avail themselves of some of the FSA’s opportunities while avoiding its most serious potential pitfalls. Part I offers a brief overview of the AFDC program. It focuses on how AFDC’s treatment of working recipients and the declining federal commitment to employment, education, and training programs during the Reagan years helped create a climate which led to the enactment of the FSA. Part II explores in detail the central features of the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training [hereinafter JOBS] program, which is the employment, education, and training component of the FSA. Part III briefly describes the main elements of California’s GAIN program – as the program was structured before FSA implementation – and draws lessons from GAIN’s early experiences to discuss some critical issues in JOBS’ implementation.

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