Richard Speiglman is a Senior Researcher at the Child and Family Policy Institute of California (CFPIC), recognized for his commitment to understanding California’s welfare system (CalWORKs). His recent work has focused on what are known as “child-only” cases (see textbox), which now make up just over half of the state’s CalWORKs caseload.
Kate Karpilow, director of the California Center for Research on Women and Families, interviewed Speiglman this month. This is the first in a series by Karpilow shining a spotlight on policies affecting women and families.
KK: Richard, you’re one of just a few researchers with a longtime focus on CalWORKs families that receive child-only cash assistance. What sparked your interest?
RS: In 2001-2002, I was living, breathing and working on all things related to CalWORKs.
Like a lot of researchers at the time, I was trying to think through how to study the effects of the federal welfare reform legislation, which had passed in 1996 and was implemented here in California in 1998.
A key question was: What will happen to families when they leave or “time out” of CalWORKs after their five years of lifetime support or when they are sanctioned for not meeting requirements and dropped from the program?
One day, we were looking at a table of CalWORKs statistics. The caseload had been shifting noticeably toward child-only. When CalWORKs started, about 20 percent of the cases were child-only, but the program was so new no one gave this statistic a second thought, as we were all focusing in on outcomes for the other 80 percent.
Three years later (in 2001-2002), the child-only caseload had doubled to 40 percent of all cases…and this, to use a scientific concept, blew our minds.
I was forced to ask: What is going on with these families and kids? The rest was history. . . or, more accurately, a string of grant proposals with fellow researchers.
KK: You’ve since conducted three child-only studies and another is underway. What were your major findings from the first study?
RS: In the first study, called When Adults are Left Out: CalWORKs Child Only Cases in Seven Counties, we found major demographic differences among types of child-only cases and between child-only cases and aided-adult cases. For example, we found that child-only cases tended to have older adults and kids, which is not a big surprise because it takes a while to time-out, be sanctioned, or get onto Supplemental Security Income (SSI), three of the child-only categories.
We also found that the welfare grants, while smaller for child-only cases, helped support larger families. That’s because there’s a greater likelihood of child-only families having two parents (as in the case of immigrant families). This suggested greater hardship in these families.
KK: So the first study gathered basic data about these families, information that never existed before. What did you learn from your second study?
RS: The second report focused in on parents who were timed out or sanctioned in 5 of the 7 counties we studied in the first report. We found that the vast majority of safety net and sanctioned parents faced multiple barriers to work.
We also found that people were less likely to have worked in the past year if they lacked recent full-time work experience; had child care, alcohol or other drug or mental health problems; experienced residential instability; had education less than a GED or a high school diploma; or had physical health problems.
Parents with two or more barriers had only a 39% chance of having worked any hours in the past year.
KK: And the third study?
RS: We addressed a question almost never previously studied, the situation of children and parents in families that receive child-only assistance while the parent is on SSI. We only had funding to conduct the study in San Francisco.
People may think that families with SSI are doing fine because SSI brings in additional cash assistance and has no time limit. But in fact, as my co-authors and I discuss in the third report, these families are headed by a disabled parent who has little opportunity for additional income or personal fulfillment from work and who is diagnosed, typically, with serious physical and mental health conditions.
We also found that many of the kids experience serious problems, as reported by their parents – trouble in school, mental health problems. It’s very frightening. Material hardships and hunger were widespread. The kids seemed to be in poor health, as well as have behavioral problems.
A surprising, even profound, finding was that for children and households, doing well was associated with living in subsidized housing.
KK: I understand that your fourth study is national in scope.
RS: I’m part of a team researching child-only cases in California, New York, Illinois, and Florida, which together account for 40 percent of child-only cases nationwide. We’re interested in describing child-only cases in terms of demographics, changes in caseload size over time, and how children and families enter and exit the system. It’s all very basic information, and it’s fascinating that the federal data systems can’t produce this information as a matter of course.
KK: What are the implications of child-only research for public policy?
RS: The research to date underscores the importance of considering the needs of the whole family. If child-only cases are part of CalWORKs, the system can’t just be about getting parents to work. Some of these kids have real issues as well — for which there are no dedicated services being provided. We have to figure out how to provide access to alternative funding sources for services not provided through CalWORKs.
Finally, as the federal government looks once again at reauthorizing federal welfare legislation (the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program), we need more discussion about whether or not TANF — CalWORKs here in California — offers the right approach to dealing with families with multiple problems. TANF has had some successes, but we need to think through who we can successfully target to get into the workforce. For others, because they may not engage successfully in employment due to age, disability or partial disability, or immigration status, different strategies will be required.
KK: So bring it back home to California.
RS: When it comes to making decisions about CalWORKs child-only cases, policymakers are driving without a map. The CalWORKs program is set up to get people trained and educated, accumulate work experience, and become increasingly self-sufficient.
But for the 50-percent-plus of CalWORKs cases that are child-only, what really are the objectives for these families?
Is CalWORKs solely an anti-poverty program to provide cash assistance? If so, is CalWORKs the best vehicle to administer this support? Or, if child well-being is the real policy objective, what does that imply about the kinds of services CalWORKs should be providing?
Clearly, when it comes to CalWORKs child-only cases, we need more research and policy dialogue to understand the kinds of support these kids and their families need.
Questions about CalWORKs child-only cases can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.