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key takeaway

California’s CalWORKs program, while crucial for low-income families with children, penalizes them financially for not meeting work requirements. This is counterproductive as sanctioned families often face the most barriers to employment.

The California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program is a critical component of California’s safety net for families with low incomes. The program helps over 650,000 children and their families, who are predominantly people of color, with modest cash grants, employment assistance, and critical supportive services. However, the program has a problematic history of prioritizing work over family well-being, exemplified by financial penalties against families and counties that don’t meet narrowly defined performance indicators.

For many families, receiving cash assistance is conditional on engaging in employment or other specified “welfare-to-work” activities intended to lead to employment, such as on-the-job training or unpaid work experience. Additionally, families must navigate through various other paperwork-related stipulations, which further exacerbate the barriers to accessing the much-needed aid. Families who do not comply with all the requirements set forth by the state can be subject to a financial sanction that reduces their monthly cash grant.

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California’s sanction policy is harsher than what is required by the federal government. The punitive approach to this safety net cash assistance is counterproductive. Research shows that sanctioned recipients are often those who face the most barriers to employment, such as limited education, learning disabilities, limited work history, physical and mental health problems, and a history of domestic violence.1Rachel Kirzner, TANF Sanctions: Their Impact on Earnings, Employment, and Health (Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Drexel University, March 23, 2015). These participants are often not aware of the financial penalties or cannot fully navigate the overly burdensome processes due to limited resources and information.

As states across the country are learning that harsh sanctions do not directly lead to gainful employment and family stability, many have reduced the amount by which cash grants are cut, recognizing that pushing families deeper into poverty only further jeopardizes their well-being. California, which is often at the vanguard of providing cash and safety net support, is unfortunately trailing significantly behind.

How do CalWORKs sanctions impact California families?

CalWORKs families cannot afford to be sanctioned. These artificial barriers put families at risk of falling deeper into poverty. Briana, a Parent Voices California advocate, experienced this reality firsthand. As a mother of four living in Contra Costa County, Briana has been on and off of CalWORKs since the age of 17. Even though her CalWORKs case manager did not help her to utilize the full scope of CalWORKs services (i.e., child care, school tuition assistance), Briana received her certified nursing assistant certification (CNA) and achieved her goal of working in the medical field, which she did for several years. A CNA certification course at Contra Costa College is approximately $322 in fees and CNA students pay over $100 in books, costs that could have been covered by CalWORKs benefits and not paid through Briana’s cash aid.

While experiencing postpartum depression following the births of her son and daughter, Briana went back on CalWORKs assistance to help make ends meet. During this time, Briana was sanctioned several times for reasons such as:

  • Not having an up-to-date immunization card;
  • Not having one of her children’s birth certificates on file; 
  • Not turning in a check stub (despite the stub already being in the CalWORKs system); 
  • As well as other reasons unknown to Briana.

These sanctions cost Briana hundreds of dollars, as highlighted in the preceding chart. With the $242 recouped from sanctions, every month, Briana could have paid for:

  • Six days of groceries for her family;
  • Three-quarters of her monthly utility bill;
  • 48 gallons of gas; or
  • Funds to support rent and car payments.

Briana’s sanctions coupled with remaining cash aid paying for her CNA certification exacerbated her financial insecurity. At the time that Briana shared her story at a March 2024 Assembly hearing, she was $300 short on her rent and car payment and had $0 left on her EBT card.

Briana’s story is just one example of how CalWORKs sanctions perpetuate the cycle of poverty and are rooted in a racist and sexist history popularized by figures like then California Governor Ronald Reagan that punished Black and other mothers of color, in particular. In the words of Briana: “Our future generations, our grandkids, somebody down the line is gonna need help. And I just want it to be easier for them. We need to defend these programs against cuts, get rid of these unnecessary sanctions, and reimagine CalWORKs into a program that opens those doors to help us get to where we want to go.”

How can policymakers ensure families in need have access to CalWORKs?

The governor’s commitment, outlined in his January budget proposal, to apply to a federal pilot aiming to center family well-being over work requirements offers California a great opportunity to reevaluate its sanction policy. Policymakers can make a significant difference in CalWORKs families’ lives, like Briana’s, by eliminating non-federally required sanctions and minimizing the amount sanctioned families lose each month. Additionally, policymakers should continue investing in CalWORKs and protect the program from harmful cuts. CalWORKs should center the well-being of families by removing barriers instead of amplifying them.

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The Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP) program is a critical lifeline that assists over 1 million low-income individuals with disabilities and adults age 65 or older in California by covering expenses such as housing, food, and other essential living costs.

The fiscal year 2021-22 state budget included a significant SSP grant increase of 24%, which became effective on January 1, 2022. This increase has helped to reduce the disparity between grant levels and the Federal Poverty Line (FPL). However, many participants in the program still struggle to afford basic necessities like rent.

Despite the recent increase, grant levels remain insufficient due to damaging budget cuts made by the state during the Great Recession. During this period, the state eliminated the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for the SSP grant. Had the COLA been preserved, grant levels would have already exceeded the FPL. Restoring the COLA can ensure that grants keep up with rising costs especially given recent inflation trends.

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key takeaway

CalWORKs is a crucial safety net program supporting low-income families. However, proposed budget cuts prioritize short-term employment over long-term stability, potentially undermining the program’s effectiveness and contradicting the governor’s stated goals.

The California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program plays a crucial role in supporting children and families with low incomes. CalWORKs helps families with children struggling to meet their basic needs by providing them with modest monthly cash grants and important supportive services. Recent state reforms to CalWORKs have been designed to improve the program’s capacity to support parents in identifying goals, addressing barriers, and securing sustainable economic stability and family well-being.

However, the recent governor’s budget proposal shifts the program’s focus, aligning it more closely with the problematic roots of the federal program. The proposed cuts would narrow the program’s focus to basic cash aid by diminishing vital support services and case management. These cuts prioritize rapidly moving parents into paid employment over addressing the broader, longer-term barriers to work and the resources necessary for families to flourish. This contradicts and would likely undermine the governor’s commitment to pursue a new federal opportunity designed to strengthen the program by focusing on family stability and well-being.

What is the history of the CalWORKs program?

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as CalWORKs is known federally, was enacted in 1996 as part of President Clinton’s welfare reform, aiming to grant states more autonomy in addressing poverty and assisting families. However, the program fell short of fulfilling its original intent due to the prevailing narrative that not all families were worthy of assistance. This included racist, sexist, and historical biases, such as the “welfare queen” stereotype popularized by figures like then California Governor Ronald Reagan. This narrative influenced the 1990s reform that ultimately cut assistance and imposed punitive “welfare to work” training and employment requirements on TANF participants. Since its inception, the federal program has focused on quickly pushing parents into paid employment over addressing longer-term barriers to work and resources needed to lead thriving lives.

In 1997, California mirrored these federal reforms with the establishment of the CalWORKs program, signed into law by Governor Pete Wilson. Echoing sentiments at the federal level, Wilson framed the program as a means to prompt welfare recipients to “escape from dependency” on assistance while stressing the strict time limits and work requirements. At the core of this is the idea of “self-responsibility” that minimizes the systemic barriers that affect program participants, including racist and sexist discrimination in workplaces and educational settings, as well as the generational trauma stemming from living in poverty.

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What does the future of TANF look like?

On June 3, 2023, President Biden signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) into law. This piece of legislation was significant to safety net policy because it was the first time Congress had made significant programmatic changes to the TANF program in nearly two decades and provided a window of opportunity to fundamentally change the short-sighted work-first approach to the TANF program. Among various provisions, the FRA includes a pilot program that would fund up to five states to test alternative performance indicators instead of the work participation rate (WPR). States selected to participate in the pilot program would be evaluated based on:

  • The percentage of work-eligible participants employed after exiting the program;
  • The level of earnings of these participants; and
  • Other indicators of family stability and well-being.

The goal of the pilot program is to move away from evaluating program success based on work participation, which has been the single target metric since the program’s inception. The WPR is a process measure that only accounts for whether the parent is able to document their required hours of participation in a narrow set of approved activities. There is little evidence to suggest that work participation as a metric is indicative of long-term employment and self-sufficiency. Rather, research suggests that stringent work requirements push people into jobs similar to the ones they lost, leading up to their TANF participation. This creates an ineffective cycle of moving people between low-wage unstable employment and TANF benefits. There is no clear link between work requirements and reductions in poverty.

Are California policymakers prioritizing a family-first approach to CalWORKs?

In his January 10th proposed budget, Governor Newsom indicated, in reference to the federal pilot program, that “California plans to pursue this opportunity to reform the accountability tools in the CalWORKs program to improve outcomes for families.” While California has made significant progress toward tracking CalWORKs outcomes in creative ways with the introduction of the CalWORKs Outcomes and Accountability Review (Cal-OAR) framework and adopted an evidence-based behavioral approach to guide families in setting goals (CalWORKs 2.0), it has yet to make significant programmatic changes to disrupt the reliance on work participation as a metric for success.

Rather than expanding on this framework, the governor proposed significant cuts to the CalWORKs program, impacting administrative funding as well as reducing intensive case management services and effectively eliminating two programs that make a concerted effort to address barriers to employment and provide support to families with the most complex needs. The two impacted programs are:

How does the governor’s proposal to cut select CalWORKs programs align with the future of TANF?

The irony of the governor’s proposed cuts to CalWORKs is that they impact programs that would directly align with the intent of the new federal pilot program (described above). The ESE program has been successful in helping participants obtain work experience and development in their journey to finding a permanent job. This could lead to better outcomes in terms of employment and earnings after exiting the program, which is directly linked to the pilot objectives.

The FS program provides families with intensive case management and timely access to crisis management services, which directly aligns with the family stability and well-being goals of the pilot program. These services include a range of housing, mental health, substance abuse, and other supports critical to prevent family instabilities such as homelessness and child welfare system involvement. Additionally, the FS program is essential to remove barriers to work that may prevent participants from obtaining and maintaining employment. Together, these services better support families in exiting the program with sustainable economic security.

The governor’s budget proposal to effectively eliminate these two components of the CalWORKs program is contradictory to his goal of pursuing the federal pilot program. Taking away essential family support is reminiscent of the 1990s discourse that policymakers should move beyond. Rather than taking a step backward, California should continue to lead the way in creating a more family-centered CalWORKs program by leaning into the elimination of barriers to employment so that families can feel fully supported and be able to thrive. This will help ensure the state not only has a successful pilot application, but can demonstrate to the nation progress in the real family outcomes and pathways out of poverty that the pilot will assess. 

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