California’s welfare system, known as CalWORKs, is designed as a time-limited cash assistance and welfare-to-work program to help recipients get trained and employed. Self-sufficiency is the buzz word.
But consider this fact: Since 2004/2005, children, not adults, have made up the majority of welfare cases in California. Under CalWORKs, cash assistance can be provided to eligible children in situations when their parents or caregivers are no longer eligible for aid or never were (see sidebar). These “child-only” cases comprised 53 percent of the CalWORKs caseload in the federal fiscal year ending in 2009.
So if welfare recipients are now more likely to be riding bikes and playing video games than filling out resumes, what do we actually know about these kids?
Not enough, it turns out.
No statewide study has ever been conducted to help us understand how these kids are faring in CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids), though several child-only studies have focused on a subset of California counties and a national study may yield demographic child-only data for California.
There has also never been a legislative hearing or conference to assess how the current set of work-first county services might need to be redesigned to support a child-only caseload not expected to enter the workforce.
Fifteen years ago, policy wonks wondered what might happen when poor people finally reached their life-time limit for welfare benefits, and many experts expected an increase in homelessness.
No one predicted that a program intended to help adults enter the workplace would eventually morph into a system where more than half the cases would be “child-only.” But that’s exactly what’s happened.
Just how did this transformation occur?
When federal welfare reform passed in 1996, the “entitlement” for adult support was eliminated, ending the days when anyone who otherwise met the eligibility standards could stay on aid forever. Timelines, work requirements, more restrictive eligibility requirements, and welfare-to-work services were put in place.
Over the past 15 years, the number of adults in the system declined, in part because of successful welfare-to-work efforts and, until recently, a decent economy that reduced the need to rely on welfare support. The caseload also decreased because people have “timed out” (used up their life-time limit of welfare benefits), or they’ve been dropped from CalWORKs (“sanctioned”) because they don’t meet work participation requirements.
Other adults, such as parents receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), individuals convicted of certain felonies, and non-eligible immigrants don’t qualify for welfare, but their citizen children do.
When California policymakers created CalWORKs to implement federal welfare reform, the state included reduction of child poverty as a program objective.
That’s the rationale for providing “child-only” assistance, giving aid to the children even when the adults are barred. and it’s a legacy to be proud of:
As the number of eligible parents has decreased, policymakers did not turn their backs on children living in poverty.
So it’s a good thing we have an industrious new Governor who appears to be thinking about the future of California and what our state will look like when we emerge from our fiscal crisis.
The previous Governor proposed throwing the “child-only” babies out with the bathwater, recommending the complete elimination of CalWORKs.
Governor Brown has been more restrained, proposing in his 2011-2012 budget to cut all CalWORKs grants, including child-only, by 13 percent and to reduce time-limits from 60 to 48 months.
As a sign that someone in this new Administration understands the impoverished circumstances of child-only kids, two groups – kids living with non-parent caretakers and children living with parents receiving SSI – would see their grants cut 13%, but would not face any time limits or work participation requirements.
However, other child-only grants would be cut completely unless parents meet federal work participation requirements –- beginning July 1 for children whose parents have already used their lifetime limit of welfare benefits, or at the end of a retroactive 48-month time-limit for children of parents who have been sanctioned, are non-qualifying immigrants, or have been convicted of specified felonies.
It’s all very complicated and technical – but it’s about the lives of California’s children.
As the budget debates heat up, let’s hope our state’s policymakers remember that “child-only” kids comprise more than half the cases in our state’s welfare system. And let’s hope they look ahead to consider whether or not our welfare-to-work CalWORKs program is meeting the needs of these low-income children.
Kate Karpilow is director of the California Center for Research on Women and Families.