This is going to hurt

California’s poor will likely get hit harder under Brown administration than they did under Schwarzenegger

Illustration by John Kloss

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Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown will hit California’s poor harder than his Republican predecessor ever did. And the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature appears willing to help.

Under Brown’s budget proposal, more than 100,000 families, including 230,000 children, will lose their benefits entirely under the state’s welfare-to-work program, called CalWORKs. For others, the state’s safety net will shrink to the size of a kerchief.

Brown has called for an end to tax loopholes for corporations, a revision in the state pension system, and is asking that voters approve a series of tax extensions to prevent further cuts to education and public safety. He’s also promising deep cuts to health and human services programs.

“In other words, everything’s on the table,” said Bruce Wagstaff, director of Sacramento County’s Countywide Services Agency, which oversees 11 departments, including the Department of Human Assistance, under which CalWORKs falls. “I don’t mean the cuts aren’t going to hurt—they are. But it doesn’t feel like the poor are being singled out to bear the brunt of the budget woes like they were under the previous administration.”

Maybe not, but they might be hurt more than they were under the previous administration—at least at first.

CalWORKs includes cash aid, food stamps, Medi-Cal, and a welfare-to-work component as well. A family of three receives a maximum of $526 in monthly food stamps.

Only people with children may receive CalWORKs aid. They may be single, but have to have at least one child to qualify.

Recipients from a one-parent family must complete 32 hours of work-related activity per week. This may include working a job, job training, education or a combination of activities. Recipients who earn money from employment have that income deducted from their monthly grant.

Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened total elimination of the CalWORKs program last year. But Democrats pushed back, and the program only sustained a 4 percent hit, resulting in a monthly grant reduction for recipients of $28.

If Brown’s proposal goes through, a family of three will see its monthly grant go from $694 to $604—a 13 percent hit.

Set to go into effect June 1, the 13 percent grant reduction will save the state $13.9 million in 2010-11 and $405 million in 2011-12. (The big jump is due mostly to the fact that fiscal year 2010-11 will be over by the time the changes go into effect.)

Brown combines this with a severe reduction in the amount of time a family is allowed to receive welfare benefits, from 60 months to 48 months, retroactively.

That will immediately result in 115,000 families, including 230,000 children, being eliminated from the program in 2011-2012.

Some families may continue to receive drastically reduced “child-only” grants past the 48-month eligibility period if they currently meet federal work activity requirements. But the Western Center on Law and Poverty contends that the proposal unfairly targets the neediest of the needy—the ones with little to no other source of income.

“We believe this policy is backwards and we urge the committees to reject it,” said Michael Herald, legislative advocate for the center, in a letter to legislative budget committees.

In Sacramento County, about 8,000 families would lose their eligibility for CalWORKs benefits if the new time limits become law. As of December 2010, there were 88,524 people on CalWORKs countywide, including more than 65,000 children.

But if things are potentially worse off for the poor under Brown’s proposals than they were under Schwarzenegger, Democrats seem more willing to go with the program.

“I think it’s partly that you have a Democrat saying these things, but also it’s his approach,” said Wagstaff. “He’s taking a balanced approach, with the across-the-board cuts, raising revenue, and the whole restructuring of state and county government through realignment, and the dollars that come with that.”

Wagstaff, whose time in state government started at the Department of Social Services during the first Brown administration, and who worked with the Legislature helping craft welfare-reform legislation during the Pete Wilson administration, said that the cuts must be endured because they know things could be much worse.

Along with the cuts, Brown is proposing a June ballot measure to extend temporary sales and income tax hikes. The taxes, raised in 2009, are set to expire July 1. Brown’s proposed ballot measure would extend them for five years, bringing in about $12.5 billion for the state for 2011-12. That’s about half of the current $25.4 billion deficit.

Schwarzenegger supported a similar ballot measure less than two years ago, but voters rejected it. And Brown needs a two-thirds vote of the Legislature just to get to the ballot, which means at least getting a handful of Republican votes.

But most GOP legislators have signed pledges not to support or assist in raising new taxes. Republicans control just over one-third of the seats in the Capitol, just enough to negate any plan hammered out between Brown and legislative leaders.

If that measure fails, and there’s a good chance it won’t even reach the ballot, that means deeper cuts.

“We’ve been told to take the cuts proposed and double those,” said Paul Lake, director of the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance.

Western Center’s Herald said it’s “absolutely essential for these revenues to be extended for the time that the governor is proposing, and for Republicans to suggest that it shouldn’t even be on the ballot is disingenuous.”

“Even if you plan to vote against it—what is it saying that you won’t let it on the ballot? That you won’t trust voters with the big issues?”

Herald says advocates for the poor are being more restrained in how they approach this governor. “This governor is not calling these recipients’ names. He’s not telling the world that our clients are lazy and sitting at home, eating bonbons. So we’re being civil as well. But we’re critical of the governor’s budget, and we’re talking about it to whoever will listen.”