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Dion Aroner warns fewer jobs means more welfare

By Gabriel Spitzer, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday October 26, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – As the California economy slows, Assemblymember Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley, warned Thursday that the state’s welfare caseload – in decline for half a decade – may soon rise again.  

Addressing U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services Wade Horn, who invited lawmakers and administrators from five Western states and Guam to the meeting at a San Francisco hotel, Aroner said California needs flexibility to move around federal funds as job losses mount in the state.  

“You’re sitting in a city where I-don’t-know-how-many people have been laid off,” she said. “That’s the reason you’re all getting this hotel at the rates you are.” 

The meeting was the second in a series of five “listening sessions” being conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with the reauthorization of a key welfare reform program set to come before Congress.  

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families legislation, passed in 1996, provides block grants to the states to help low-income families and transition them from welfare to the workforce. The program expires at the end of September 2002.  

States are free to spend the money as they please, as long as it is used to address one of four areas: assisting working families, promoting job preparation, discouraging out-of-wedlock childbirth and increasing the number of two-parent families. Aroner implored lawmakers to leave spending decisions in the hands of the states.  

“These purposes highlight federal priorities while respecting local authority,” she said.  

Aroner touted California’s welfare reform program, urging federal administrators not to restrict how states spend federal funds doled out to run states’ welfare reform programs.  

“It’s very important that we maintain that flexibility,” Aroner said. “Please don’t take that away from us.”  

Aroner said California will need the freedom to shift TANF funds from programs like childcare and job training, which were considered good investments in times of relative prosperity, to income-maintenance programs as the economy slows.  

Since welfare reform began, the state’s welfare rolls have been nearly halved. According to figures from the California Department of Finance, nearly 1 million families received assistance from the state’s welfare program in 1995. By 2001, that number was down to about 550,000.  

As chair of the Assembly Committee on Human Services, Aroner helps manage the state’s “devolution” process, which she said gives counties a great deal of autonomy in how they use funds from the TANF grants.  

“We make a conscious effort to pass that flexibility on to the 58 counties,” she said. “In effect, we have 58 different welfare-reform programs.”  

But not everyone was pleased with the way the state has administered the program.  

Outside the hotel, several dozen protesters marched and chanted, calling on the decision-makers inside to heed their voices and the voices of the poor.  

“I was on welfare for seven years. I went to UC Berkeley on welfare,” said Aimee Fisher, program specialist at Lifetime, an Oakland-based group that advocates for educational opportunities for families on welfare.  

“The only reason I was able to go to school was because I got in before welfare reform.” 

Fisher said the “devolution” program Aroner praised at the meeting actually takes money away from the people who need it.  

“It would be nice if the counties would use the money for the needs of poor people,” she said. “But the county money gets taken into other programs, into general-use county funds.” 

Inside the hotel, Aroner urged Horn to extend his listening tour to include activists.  

“I think it’s important that we hear from all the advocacy groups,” she said. “There are a lot of folks out there on the sidewalk, rather than at this table. We need to find a place for everybody.”