Meg Whitman's new radio ad features what sounds like a good idea: Take $1 billion from what she describes as California's bloated welfare case loads and give it to the University of California and California State University systems.
The problem? There isn't $1 billion in welfare to grab. The entire state welfare-to-work program, known as CalWORKS, is a $1.6 billion program. Plus, if Gov. Schwarzenegger gets his way, the program will be shut down (he has proposed just that in the current budget stalemate).
(IMPORTANT ADD: A campaign spokesman notes that Whitman's policy book says that the $1 billion would come from savings to welfare and other budget reforms.)
Even if CalWORKS sticks around, Whitman is basing her ability to find $1 billion in savings on a selective reading of statistics. Her campaign policy plan points to a figure that only 22 percent of able-bodied work eligible welfare recipients are working for their benefits in California. So eliminate the rest of the recipients and there's a billion dollars. She also notes that California has high caseloads, which she proposes to cut by aligning California's welfare rules with those of other states.
If only savings were that easy. California's higher caseloads are mostly a mirage, which reflect how the state counts people on the rolls. CalWORKS keeps people on board at lower rates even after they secure low-income work. Other states do it but use different accounting and thus do not count families on their caseloads.
There are other misleading pieces of the Whitman plan here, including the notion that California never did welfare reform. She might ask her campaign co-chair, former Gov. Pete Wilson, who launched CalWORKS more than a decade ago, triggering a big decline in welfare caseloads since then.
There's also fiscal reality. To cut more of the program would mean cutting benefits. And the benefits are scandalously low. The top cash grant for a family of three in this state is $694 a month. Try living on that in California.
That said, Whitman isn't all wrong on welfare. California should cut people off after they've reached a five-year lifetime limit on cash benefits. That may seem harsh, but we're one of only nine states that are that generous.
But there's not $1 billion in welfare savings, to boost universities or anything else. And Whitman's own policy plans involve other spending, particularly in building new prisons. Since she's promised no new taxes and proposed a spending cap, it's hard to see how she wouldn't end up cutting more state contribution to higher education. No, this idea is just one more example of the "something for nothing" disease that afflicts California.