Assembly Reconsiders Deep Cuts to CalWORKs “Child-Only” Cash Assistance

One of the founding principles of CalWORKs – created with bipartisan support in 1997 in the wake of federal welfare reform – was that the program should provide a strong safety net to prevent eligible low-income children from falling into deep poverty and homelessness.  Because of this commitment, California provides modest cash assistance for children whose parents have hit their lifetime limit on aid and “timed off” CalWORKs, as well as for children living with relatives who do not receive a grant for themselves. While the state has made a number of cuts to CalWORKs to help close recent years’ budget gaps, lawmakers have upheld the bipartisan commitment to protect children by shielding “child-only” grants from budget cuts – until this year.

In March, the Legislature voted to reduce child-only grants by up to 15 percent for children who have received cash assistance for more than five years. More than 325,000 children will be affected by this new policy in 2011-12, with roughly 225,000 of these kids (69.1 percent) subject to the maximum 15 percent cut, according to a CBP analysis of Department of Social Services data. The child-only grant cut comes on top of a separate 8 percent reduction that will affect all CalWORKs families – not just “child-only” families – in 2011-12. As a result, roughly 225,000 children face the prospect of losing nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the income that helps support their families. For a family of three subject to the maximum reduction, the child-only grant in high-cost counties will fall from the current $561 to $439 – a $122-per-month drop that will reduce the grant to 28.4 percent of the federal poverty line.

Some legislators are having second thoughts about targeting child-only cash assistance for extraordinary cuts. Last week, Assembly Budget Subcommittee #1 on Health and Human Services voted to rescind the child-only cut. The state Senate has – so far – left the child-only cut in place. Reversing this cut not only would uphold the state’s commitment to protect low-income children from deep poverty, but also would send a positive signal to relatives who have taken nieces, nephews, and grandchildren into their homes and who rely on CalWORKs to help provide for those children. Maintaining cash assistance at an adequate level will help ensure that these relatives can properly care for the children they’ve taken in and make it less likely that those kids, some of whom were abused or neglected by their parents, will end up in the foster care and child welfare systems “at far higher cost to the public,” as the County Welfare Directors Association of California and other advocates put it in a recent letter.

CalWORKs has endured multiple rounds of budget cuts in recent years that have reduced families’ incomes and scaled back services designed to help parents prepare for and find a job. The cumulative impact of these cuts amounts to $3.5 billion between 2008-09 and 2011-12. If any CalWORKs cut deserves to be rolled back, it is surely the pending reduction to child-only grants. Doing so would restore the state’s bipartisan commitment to protect low-income children – a principle endorsed by former Republican Governor Pete Wilson and other state leaders on a bipartisan basis.

—Scott Graves