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key takeaway

Despite recent strides in increasing CalWORKs grants, persistent challenges remain in addressing deep poverty for California families. By advancing reforms, state leaders can lift families out of poverty and ensure economic security for Californians.

The California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program plays a crucial role in supporting children and families with low incomes. CalWORKs not only aids families financially, by providing modest monthly cash grants to over 650,000 children across the state, but also assists parents in overcoming employment barriers.1Based on Budget Center analysis of Department of Social Services data for September 2022, the most recent month with available statewide data. Although recent increases in CalWORKs grants have helped prevent deep poverty for many families, there is still work to do to ensure the prosperity of all CalWORKs families.

The Impact of Deep Poverty on California’s Children

Deep poverty — which occurs when a family’s income falls below half the official federal poverty line (FPL) — takes a toll on both children and the state. This hinders the development of a healthy society and economy. In 2022, approximately 6.6% of children in California were living in deep poverty.2Based on Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey data for 2022. Children experiencing poverty are more likely to face poverty in adulthood, impacting their overall well-being. When family incomes fall short of meeting basic needs, children may struggle to concentrate in school, face increased health risks in crowded living conditions, and endure heightened stress levels, negatively affecting their immune system and neurological development.3Mercedes Ekono, Yang Jiang, Sheila Smith, Young Children in Deep Poverty (National Center for Children in Poverty, January 2016). Allowing poverty to persist jeopardizes the prosperity of the entire state.

CalWORKs Advances: A Closer Look at Recent Progress

Despite facing cuts during and after the Great Recession, such as reduced grant levels and the elimination of the annual state cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), CalWORKs has seen positive developments in recent years. The 2022-2023 state budget marked a significant milestone with an effective 21% increase in CalWORKs grants — the largest since the program began in 1998. The 2023-2024 budget continued this trend with a 3.6% increase. For CalWORKs families, these advancements represent crucial steps toward eliminating deep poverty.

However, some CalWORKs families still receive grants below the deep poverty line. CalWORKs grants are adjusted according to the number of people in the household who are eligible for cash assistance. However, family members may be excluded from grant calculations if they:

  • have exceeded the time limit for assistance
  • are sanctioned for not meeting work requirements
  • are ineligible due to their immigration status

About 37% of CalWORKs families only receive aid for the children in the household, excluding the parents.4Based on Budget Center analysis of Department of Social Services data for September 2022, the most recent month with available statewide data. This amounts to 240,000 children in households that are not guaranteed a grant above the deep poverty threshold. This is only a baseline scenario, as some families may have one excluded parent while the other receives aid. Families of three with one excluded family member receive a maximum monthly grant that is as low as 42.5% of the FPL. This leaves them without sufficient assistance for basic needs.

Enhancing CalWORKs to Lift Families Out of Poverty

State leaders can help California families avoid deep poverty by increasing CalWORKS grants for families with excluded family members, similar to those not facing such exclusions. Simultaneously, leaders can strive to reduce the number of families that face exclusions by reforming CalWORKs sanctions. State leaders can ensure that no family in the CalWORKs program lives in deep poverty by:

  • Eliminating non-federally required sanctions.
  • Reducing the length of time parents are excluded from aid.
  • 1
    Based on Budget Center analysis of Department of Social Services data for September 2022, the most recent month with available statewide data.
  • 2
    Based on Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey data for 2022.
  • 3
    Mercedes Ekono, Yang Jiang, Sheila Smith, Young Children in Deep Poverty (National Center for Children in Poverty, January 2016).
  • 4
    Based on Budget Center analysis of Department of Social Services data for September 2022, the most recent month with available statewide data.

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