Welfare cuts deep, possibly deeper

Pazia Kirk looks forward to a time when she can give her son a Christmas without the Salvation Army’s help, stop taking the bus and make use of a savings account.

The single mother from Citrus Heights is working toward becoming a registered nurse, but in the meantime, she gets by on welfare.

“It’s a struggle,” says Kirk, 20. “I got to budget day by day.”

Lots of welfare recipients are budgeting with less, now that California has implemented $1 billion in cuts, the biggest ever reduction in aid.

As state leaders rethink welfare, the entitlement program faces an existential crisis: Do the budget cuts trim the fat from an exploited and wasteful expense? Or do they sink the state’s poorest residents even deeper into poverty?

Those in the former camp welcomed the legislation that sent fewer tax dollars to CalWORKs, the state’s $6 billion welfare program. Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in the spring, Senate Bill 72 reduced monthly grants by 8 percent; cut off welfare recipients after 48 months, rather than 60; cut funds to help teenage parents finish high school; and sent less money down to counties.

But critics say the state is still spending too much on CalWORKs. The value of recipients’ monthly checks is greater than those in all but six states. Currently, the maximum monthly grant for a mother of two is $638.

“We’re a magnet for people who can get more for not working,” said state Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), a member of the state Senate Human Services Committee.

But welfare advocates say the value of those grants is the same as it was in 1989 and is currently worth less than half the federal poverty level.

Recipients use much of that money for housing, so when welfare is reduced, homelessness rises. In Los Angeles County, the number of homeless welfare cases has doubled in the past five years, officials say, because of the recession and welfare cuts.

Most welfare grants go to children, who account for 1.1 million of the 1.4 million Californians on aid.

Children might also be the reason behind this sharp statistic: California has an eighth of the nation’s population but one-third of its welfare beneficiaries. Fifteen years ago, that fraction was closer to one-fifth.

Critics like Strickland say the jump is because the state makes it far too easy for people to take advantage of public assistance, diminishing the motivation to work.

The view from advocates: California is one of just eight states that continued to support children after their parents’ benefits expire. Children can remain on welfare until they turn 18.

As Scott Graves, a senior policy analyst at the California Budget Project, explained in a 2009 blog post: “As other states have shredded their safety nets for low-income children—dramatically shrinking their welfare caseloads—California’s share of all [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] recipients has grown proportionately, even as the number of Californians receiving assistance has been cut by more than half.”

In other words, the cases in California seemed to jump because those in other states dropped.

New Mexico, South Carolina and Washington decreased welfare grants by at least 15 percent earlier this year. Most states support recipients until the federal limit of 60 months, but Arizona slashed that to 24 months, while Maine, Michigan and Washington tightened rules on time limits.

In California, a federal grant of $3.7 billion requires a match of $2.9 billion from the state. But a lot of that money can fund programs other than CalWORKs if they help needy families. For instance, more than a quarter million TANF dollars will be diverted to Cal Grants, the college financial aid.

“The TANF program is being used like a piggy bank,” said Mike Herald, a legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “That’s what’s forcing these cuts, not that we’ve overspent, but that the state is broke and needs the money.”

When Democratic lawmakers approved the cuts in March, they said the decision was painful but necessary to close California’s budget gap of $26.6 billion at the time. Republicans said welfare needs more substantive reform.

Assemblyman Brian Nestande (R-Riverside) said the state can’t afford what it pays for CalWORKs. Much of it serves a role nonprofits should fill, he said. Nestande brushed aside fears that the welfare cuts would hurt those who could least afford it, saying other states have made do with less.

“Do they have rampant homeless problems? I don’t know, but I don’t think so,” said Nestande, of Palm Desert. “The point is, people adjust.”

Like others in his party, Nestande thinks S.B. 72 didn’t do enough. He’ll introduce a bill next year to further reduce grants to children, potentially saving the state $100 million.