Reality Check III: The Governor’s View of CalWORKs

As we have reported, the July budget agreement makes major changes to the state’s CalWORKs Program, including cutting subsistence grants for some children – a significant rollback of the state’s safety net for very low-income families. The Legislature adopted these changes, which take effect in 2011, at the behest of Governor Schwarzenegger, who called a press conference last month to trumpet the fact that California has 30 percent of the nation’s “welfare” recipients, but only 12 percent of the nation’s population. “That just shows to you how off the numbers are [in California],” the Governor stated. While the Governor’s percentages are correct, this comparison – which the media continue to cite uncritically – ignores some important context:

First, California, unlike most other states, chose to maintain a strong safety net for children after federal welfare reform was enacted in the late 1990s. In response to federal welfare reform, which established the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, California created the CalWORKs Program, with an emphasis on work and services to help low-income families move toward self-sufficiency. California’s leaders, including Governor Pete Wilson, made a bipartisan commitment to provide ongoing subsistence grants for children in CalWORKs, even if their parents ran afoul of program rules or “timed off” the program. Most other states, in contrast, implemented full-family sanctions and do not provide ongoing assistance for children once their parents reached the lifetime limit on aid.

It’s no surprise that the states that enacted the most restrictive rules saw the steepest declines in their TANF caseloads. Between 1995 and 2008, for example, the number of welfare recipients plummeted by 92 percent in Illinois, by 86 percent in Florida, and by 84 percent in Texas, compared to a 55 percent drop in California. These numbers help to explain why California now has 30 percent of the nation’s welfare recipients. As other states have shredded their safety nets for low-income children – dramatically shrinking their welfare caseloads – California’s share of all TANF recipients has grown proportionately, even as the number of Californians receiving assistance has been cut by more than half.

Second, the vast majority of Californians living in poverty don’t receive CalWORKs cash assistance. In 2007, the most recent year for which comparable data are available, 4.6 million Californians had incomes below the federal poverty line ($16,705 for a family of three with two kids), while 1.1 million Californians received CalWORKs cash assistance. In other words, CalWORKs recipients made up only about one-quarter of all Californians living in poverty in 2007, down from about half in 1995. In short, California parents and children living below the poverty line are less and less likely to receive CalWORKs cash grants.

— Scott Graves

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