CalWORKs: The Rest of the Story

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that California is one of a number of states that have seen increases in their welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF) caseloads as the economic recession has deepened. However, the rising caseload is only part of the story in California. Yes, the caseload in the state’s TANF program – CalWORKs – has increased substantially, rising from about 457,000 families in April 2007, just before the current recession began in California, to about 526,000 families in April 2009 – a 15.3 percent increase. But applications for CalWORKs cash assistance increased even more rapidly, rising from about 38,000 in April 2007 to about 48,000 in April 2009, a 27.5 percent jump.

The fact that applications are rising faster than the caseload suggests that thousands of struggling families are applying for CalWORKs assistance, but are being turned away at the county welfare office due to the state’s stringent eligibility requirements. Take income, for example. A family of three in a high-cost county such as Alameda or Los Angeles currently must have a gross income of less than $1,080 per month, which is nearly 30 percent below the federal poverty level of $1,526 per month for a family of three. In addition, a family can have no more than $2,000 in assets, or $3,000 if at least one family member is at least 60 years old. (California has an asset limit even though the federal government does not require one.) While a family’s home does not count toward the asset limit, the portion of a vehicle’s market value that exceeds $4,650 does count toward the asset limit – so a low-income family that owns anything better than a clunker is likely to be disqualified from CalWORKs based solely on the value of their car.

What’s more, adults who apply for CalWORKs must be fingerprinted and have their photo taken – a requirement that most Californians probably associate more with the police department than the county welfare office. California is one of only two states with a fingerprint imaging system, and the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee voted last week to eliminate state funding for the system as part of its revisions to the February 2009 budget agreement.

— Scott Graves

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