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Raise Your Child on $12 a Day? Welcome to CalWORKs

March 5, 2012

By Amy Lemley

I think it’s time to rename our state welfare program. Instead of calling it California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs), let’s just call it Cal-Kids.

Why?  Because CalWORKs is really a children’s program.

Of the total 1.5 million benefit recipients, 79% are children.  That’s 1.14 million children as compared to 334,000 adults. Children in the program outnumber adults by over three to one. Yet we think about the program as an adult welfare program and come budget time, we punish it like an adult welfare program.

The latest example of this is the Administration’s proposal to save the state $946 million by reducing the total number of months certain adults can receive benefits from 48 to 24 and by cutting grants to child-only cases by 27 percent.

Who will feel the brunt of this policy? Children, of course. According to an analysis by California Senate Budget Subcommittee, the Administration’s proposal would knock a total of 125,000 children off the program entirely. Another 368,776 families who receive child-only grants would see their benefits decrease significantly, with a two-child family receiving just $375 a month.

I’ll do the math for you: at $375 a month, that’s $4,500 annually for two children, well below the federal poverty line. At this level of assistance, a family of three would need to get by in our high-cost state on just $12 a day.

Will their families be absorbed into the work force? Not likely. California continues to feel the effects of the recession, with unemployment remaining at 11.7 percent. According to a fiscal forecast by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, unemployment in California is expected to remain above 10 percent until 2015.

Where will these children go for help?  The plain fact is that these children won’t go anywhere. They will simply suffer the effects of deep poverty, which are well documented, and include poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socio-emotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.

Pursuing policies that will knowingly result in these outcomes is unconscionable.  It is also short-sighted because each of these poor outcomes comes with a very real price tag for California tax payers in the form of incarceration, homelessness, hospitalization, and of course, involvement with the child welfare system.

CalWORKs is a national model for a real welfare to work program, not just a dead-end program for low-income families.  Since its inception in 1997, over 400,000 families in California have moved off benefits into self-sufficiency. Even in our current recession, the program has successfully moved 20,000 families into self-sufficiency through an innovative program of subsidized employment.

Despite this success, the program has been reduced by $3 billion since 2008, according to the California County Welfare Director’s Association. In case you think that the cost of the program is breaking California’s bank, think again. According to the California Budget Project, welfare assistance has decreased as a percent of the state’s overall budget from 6.8 percent in 1996-97, compared with 2.9 percent in 2011-12.

Thankfully, last week the Assembly budget subcommittee rejected the Administration’s proposal.  That’s a good start. Now it’s time to ask the Administration to take this proposal off the table altogether. You can do just that by adding your name to a letter developed by the California Immigrant Policy Center.

Time and time again, when budget cuts need to be made, our state turns to its low-income children and asks for more.  At $12 a day, how much more can they give?

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