State lawmakers want to relax CalWORK’s work requirements so people keep their cash benefits. Congressional debt limit agreement could curb that.
Just as Republicans in Congress are moving to tighten work requirements for people on welfare, California lawmakers are moving to do the opposite.
Included in a recent state Assembly budget proposal, and in a bill approved by the Assembly Wednesday, is a plan to redo CalWORKs, the federally funded cash assistance program that requires beneficiaries to work or look for work using an approved business list.
Under the proposed status changes, recipients would get more flexibility to participate in activities such as going to school, domestic violence counseling, addiction treatment or mental health assistance. The proposal, estimated to cost $100 million, would also reduce financial penalties if recipients violate labor rules.
This would make it likely that fewer recipients would get jobs and more likely California would lack a key federal labor standard, for which it could be fined.
The goals of the proposed changes are to address the practical barriers to employment that CalWORKs recipients experience in approximately 340,000 of California’s poorest households and make it easier for more families to qualify for cash assistance.
And, to push California’s 58 county social services agencies to implement the plan, the proposal would also protect the counties from potential federal fines.
The efforts come at a difficult time in a decades-old national debate: Should welfare be a flexible source of emergency relief for families in financial crisis or an engine to push low-wage single parents to join the workforce?
Congressional Republicans, led by Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, have pushed for tougher welfare requirements in a bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
Welfare work objectives
The deal McCarthy struck with President Joe Biden, which the House approved on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday night, includes changes to federal welfare rules that would make it harder for California to get its job rate to meet targets federal. Failure to meet that work benchmark could cost the state $185 million of the $3.7 billion annually it receives in federal grants.
The federal government has threatened California with fines in previous years but never forced the state to pay them, advocates say.
California Department of Human Services officials have declined repeated requests for an interview about the state’s welfare policies.
For years, advocates have pushed to extricate CalWORKs from the strict federal welfare-at-work rules of the 1990s. Those rules resulted in a dramatic decline in families receiving public assistance and defined the nation’s cash aid system for a generation.
Proponents of Republican and Democratic job requirements alike during the 1990s argued that people using social safety net programs should be forced, or encouraged, to work. They said it would ultimately reduce poverty and reliance on public benefits.
A landmark 1996 federal law began requiring each state to certify that certain percentages of cash aid recipients were working or participating in a specific list of job-seeking activities, in order for the state to continue receiving welfare benefit dollars federal.
While the roles of welfare have diminished, poverty has not.
Federal reports show that the decline in welfare enrollment after 1996 was not accompanied by a corresponding decline in the number of households poor enough to qualify for welfare. Although the caseload has also plummeted in the Golden State, today families receiving cash aid in California make up nearly one-third of the nation’s recipients.
Research shows that job demands led to some increase in employment in the 1990s, but the evidence from more recent years is less clear, in part because so many people dropped out of the welfare program. A Congressional Budget Office review this year found a substantial increase since the 1990s in single mothers who have no income from either work or cash assistance.
Advocates have long called the job requirements counterproductive and racist, based on stereotypes about wellness queens who refuse to work.
California’s cash aid program has been caught between the two ideologies. The state has never fully embraced the tough 1996 policies.
While many states have drastically reduced welfare rolls opting instead to use their federal grants on other programs, California has continued to provide cash assistance. Unlike other states, California has kept aid money to children even after their parents’ benefits were cut for violating work program rules.
California also exempts many families from labor rules. For those who are subject to it, the state in 2012 created a more flexible list of activities beyond the strict federal definitions of work.
The state is risking some recipients not counting in the federal job metric. It’s a path other liberal states have taken, said Heather Hahn, a national expert at the Urban Institute.
States are doing these things that can be seen as workarounds, because working with (federal rules) seems contrary to their goals of helping people achieve economic success, Hahn said.
A chance at college
Notably, some low-income parents in California receive cash aid while in college, which counts against the state’s labor rules.
This was a lifeline for Summer Pratt.
The 42-year-old Grass Valley mother enrolled in CalWORKs after enrolling at Sierra College. She had two children to support and no income after her divorce. She is studying early childhood development and the first steps of corporate entrepreneurship in her plans to open a home-based daycare.
The money itself has been a big help in allowing me to spend time with my children and do schoolwork, and allowing me not to have to enter the workforce yet, Pratt said.
Advocates and social workers say CalWORKs is far from effective in giving people who need to work or look for work a stable, long-term path out of poverty.
We keep people just above drowning, said Nolan Sullivan, director of the Yolo County Health and Human Services Agency. Stabilizing families, allowing them to pull themselves up this ladder, this is useless.
Yolo County has the highest poverty rate in the state.
To qualify for CalWORKs, a single parent with one child can’t earn more than about $1,300 a month. Usually, by the time someone enters the program, that person is already deeply poor, given California’s high cost of living, Sullivan said, and many arrive with significant trauma.
Advocates say recipients face steep barriers to finding and keeping stable jobs that pay enough to raise children. State data shows that 45% of people required to participate in work activities do not have a high school diploma.
Many need childcare and transportation. One in five have experienced domestic violence and nearly a third report mental health problems, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.
At work but poor
Cathy Senderling, director of the California Welfare Directors Association, said that providing recipients facing such challenges with a list of required tasks can create conflicting relationships with social workers.
Parents can be on CalWORKs for up to five years. Those who leave and find work often bring home low earnings.
Just before the pandemic disrupted the economy, 18,000 former welfare recipients were earning income from jobs a year after leaving CalWORKs, according to the California Department of Human Services. In the first three months of 2020, those former recipients earned an average of $5,800 or about $23,000 a year.
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, a Democrat from Fresno, and supporters are pushing a proposal that loosens many of the state’s rules in favor of a more individualized approach.
Instead of providing recipients with a list of permitted welfare-to-work activities to complete, county social workers will develop a plan that takes into account the recipients’ individual circumstances and meets the needs of child care, mental health care or other social services.
Today, counties are asking recipients to meet certain requirements and say recipients should be able to come to counties and say, “These are the things I need first and foremost as a family,” said policy advocate Christopher Sanchez. at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
The state proposal includes reduced penalties, which are penalties that counties impose on beneficiaries who don’t follow their welfare rules. Sanctions come in the form of discontinuation of cash aid for the adult; advocates say it is counterproductive to punish troubled families by limiting benefits further.
Arambula’s proposal would essentially eliminate penalties if recipients cannot complete their plans due to lack of child care or physical, mental, emotional or other circumstances.
Learn more about the lawmakers mentioned in this story
State Assembly, District 31 (Fresno)
How he voted 2021-2022
Demographics of District 31
GOP extension 22%
No party 23%
Asm. Joaquin Arambula took at least $151,000 from the Work sector since he was elected to the legislature. Which represents 29% of his total campaign contributions.
Like all major changes in welfare services, how this policy is implemented will depend on the county welfare agencies responsible for implementation.
Sullivan, in Yolo County, said some social workers believe the threat of fines is one of the only tools they have to get people to change their lives.
He predicted the proposal would run into a cultural divide among county social workers, who are divided over how strict and rules-based welfare should be.
You can’t legislate a culture change, he said.
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