CalWORKs: The Rodney Dangerfield of Safety-Net Programs

Like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, California’s welfare-to-work program continues to “get no respect,” as evidenced by last night’s gubernatorial debate. Once again, we heard that too many Californians are enrolled in the CalWORKs Program, which emphasizes work and services to help low-income families move toward self-sufficiency. As we’ve pointed out before, California has a disproportionate share of the nation’s cash assistance recipients because California’s policymakers – including former Republican Governor Pete Wilson – chose to maintain a strong safety net for children after federal welfare reform was enacted in the late 1990s. As other states shredded their safety nets for low-income children, California’s share of all cash assistance recipients grew proportionately due to the state’s bipartisan commitment to protect children’s access to CalWORKs.

Deep cuts to CalWORKs would result in the dismantling of a highly successful program that:

  • Protects more than 1 million children from complete destitution – 1.1 million (78 percent) of CalWORKs’ 1.4 million recipients are children;
  • Has helped hundreds of thousands of low-income families transition toward work and self-sufficiency;
  • Represents a shrinking share of the state budget – CalWORKs made up about 3 percent of state spending in 2009-10, compared to about 7 percent in 1996-97;
  • Is part of California’s budget solution, not part of the problem – the state uses about $650 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant funds each year “to offset General Fund costs in other programs and departments,” according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office; and
  • Is needed more than ever as California’s families struggle with rising poverty, shrinking incomes, and more than 12 percent unemployment in the wake of the Great Recession.

How can a public program do so many things right and still “get no respect”?

— Scott Graves