As unemployed Californians struggle to find work, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed strict rules for parents on welfare: Get a job in two years or lose nearly half of cash aid along with training and child care.
"This is not nice stuff, but that's what it takes to balance the budget," Brown said earlier this month when he released his plan, which would halve the current welfare-to-work time limit.
The governor's welfare cuts would lop nearly $1 billion off the state's $9.2 billion general fund deficit. He would prioritize employment as California faces federal penalties for having too many parents who do not work 30 hours a week.
Those who study poverty say Brown's proposal is harsh because even well-qualified workers can't find jobs in this economy. They contend that parents who max out on welfare benefits are the least equipped to join the workforce.
"These are the families with the least work history, the least education, and states are saying, 'We don't want to deal with you, we're going to cut you off,' " said Liz Schott, a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program has become an annual budget target because it has fewer state and federal protections than other public programs and less voter support.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed eliminating CalWORKs until he and Democrats settled on a 2009 deal that cut the time limit from five years to four and imposed stricter sanctions.
Last year, Brown and lawmakers repealed some of the Schwarzenegger measures. But they kept the four-year time limit for adults and cut grants by 8 percent, dropping the monthly maximum from $694 to $638 for a family of three. It is lower than the $663 that California offered the same family in 1988.
"To think that in 2012, I as a single working mom would be expected to live off of income at a rate we paid in the 1980s is almost comical," said Assemblywoman Holly J. Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who heads the budget subcommittee that oversees health and welfare programs. "Ultimately, low-income working families and children are going to suffer."
Legislative Democrats say they are in no rush to pass another round of welfare cuts. Some lawmakers and advocates question how serious the governor is, seeing his plan as an austerity offering to voters as he asks for higher taxes.
But it is one of the few Brown proposals that Republicans applaud.
"We've created a culture of dependency that destroys human nature," said Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee. "When that happens, people lose the desire to continue finding work because they've given up. I believe human nature thrives when it has something productive to do."
Tia Gilmore, 25, said she lost her position in October working as a cook at a Virginia hotel, where she moved after previously living in Sacramento. She and her 4-year-old son returned home to live with her mom in October.
Gilmore receives $490 a month in CalWORKs aid and $266 in CalFresh food benefits, as well as child care for her son. She learned how to write a résumé and answer interview questions Friday during a county job training session in south Sacramento.
She feared Brown's plan would not provide enough time to attend school. "A lot of people here are still struggling and on the verge of being homeless," she said, "because it's not enough money and they can't find jobs."
In Brown's $92.6 billion general fund budget, the state would spend $1.2 billion on families in the current CalWORKs program. An additional $4.3 billion would come from federal and local funds.
Like other states, California saw a precipitous decline in welfare cases after the 1996 federal overhaul. California's caseload dropped from 921,000 cases in 1994-95 to 587,400 cases in the current fiscal year, according to state data.
California houses 33 percent of the nation's recipients with only 12 percent of the overall U.S. population.
It is one of seven states that continue paying families who have exhausted their time on the state's welfare-to-work program or cannot meet work requirements. More than half of CalWORKs cases – 304,100 – fall into this category. Besides families who have reached time limits, this group includes children whose parents or caregivers cannot qualify for CalWORKs, such as undocumented immigrants or disabled parents receiving other public aid.
Brown proposed eliminating this portion of the program last year, but Democrats rebuffed him, saying it would penalize children for the actions of their parents.
The cross-state comparisons aren't perfect, said Caroline Danielson, a policy fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. She said that while California relies heavily on CalWORKs to serve its poorest residents, other states provide similar aid in programs that lack the political stigma of welfare and don't show up in federal data.
For instance, 19 states offer refundable earned income tax credits that provide cash for low-income families. California does not.
While saving $942 million, Brown wants to split CalWORKs into three new programs. The first, CalWORKs Basic, would function similar to the traditional program by offering the highest cash aid to parents and children, as well as mental health services, job training and child care. But families would only have access for two years rather than four.
The second program, CalWORKs Plus, would provide two more years of services, but only if the parent meets federal requirements, which generally means 30 hours a week in a job not financed by public subsidies. Brown would disqualify some activities like substance abuse treatment from meeting the work requirement.
Nearly all of the 304,100 "safety net" cases – families without a qualified working parent – would move to a new Child Maintenance program. Their average family grant would drop from $463 to $392. The state would loosen paperwork requirements and require an annual child health exam.
"We want the CalWORKs program for those focused on work and becoming self-sufficient," said Todd Bland, deputy director of the welfare-to-work division at the California Department of Social Services. "Child Maintenance would be for those who cannot work, who are unwilling, sanctioned or undocumented. For them, it's not about complying with work requirements."
Parents who can't find work after two years would move to the new Child Maintenance program, where their monthly grant would drop from the $638 in traditional CalWORKs to $375 for a family of three in Child Maintenance. The only time limit occurs when a child turns 18.
The new CalWORKs time limits would be retroactive. But parents on the verge of maxing out when the changes begin in October would have a grace period through April. DSS spokesman Michael Weston said about 60,000 cases would drop by that time.
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