Will welfare still work?

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget would add $40 million to county welfare rolls

Working and going to school, Jennifer Taylor is part of the new welfare system. But Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to eliminate the CalWORKs program.

Working and going to school, Jennifer Taylor is part of the new welfare system. But Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to eliminate the CalWORKs program.

Photo By lilly fuentes joy

Jennifer Taylor never thought she’d wind up on welfare. “I’ve worked full time my whole life,” she explained. “It never occurred to me that I’d be in this situation. It’s very humbling.”

Taylor, 37, married with three children, ages 4, 6 and 15, worked in the banking industry for 15 years before being laid off from her job in October 2009—another casualty of the recession.

When she lost her job, she also lost her housing. So she found herself applying for California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids—commonly known as CalWORKs—the state’s welfare-to-work program that provides cash aid, food stamps, Medi-Cal health coverage and employment services to eligible participants.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to eliminate the CalWORKs program in order to save the state’s general fund $1 billion.

Critics say the move would cost the state $3.7 billion in federal matching funds and throw more than 1 million children into poverty. And the proposal would shift tens of millions of dollars in welfare costs to the counties. In Sacramento County alone, the bill could reach $40 million.

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

In Sacramento County, as of April, there were 86,809 people in the CalWORKs program receiving cash grants and attendant services. Seventy-four percent of those, or 64,000, were children under the age of 18. The average cash grant for a family of three is $661 per month. Additionally, those on CalWORKs may be eligible for food stamps—a federal program—and the maximum amount they may receive for a family of three is $526.

With child care for the two younger children costing $1,380 per month—the cheapest they could find—Taylor’s husband stays home with the children. Taylor receives a monthly cash grant of $897 and $400 in food stamps, in addition to Medi-Cal health coverage.

People in Taylor’s situation have to work for their grants and have strict monitoring requirements to adhere to.

Taylor was working for the U.S. Census Bureau, but that ended in June. Now she reports to a county-run agency called Community Work Experience, and that combined with her schooling will make up the 35 hours required of her per week.

At CWEX, Taylor and others look at job boards, conduct online job research, take classes in job interviews and receive job assessments, as well as a variety of other job-related activities.

It’s all a result of the welfare-to-work reforms of the late 1990s, and now in doubt because of the governor’s proposed budget.

“Frankly, it is very disturbing to see what is being proposed,” said Bruce Wagstaff, administrator of Sacramento County’s Countywide Services Agency.

Wagstaff spent 31 years at the state, 10 as deputy director of welfare programs during the Pete Wilson administration. He was the point person when federal welfare reform was passed in 1996.

“CalWORKs had a tremendous positive impact in California,” Wagstaff said, adding that from its implementation in 1998 until the start of the recession, the welfare caseload decreased by 50 percent statewide.

Mike Clevenger, who works with CalWORKs recipients at American River College, says the program has been successful at reducing welfare rolls.

Photo By gabor mereg

A large subset of CalWORKs recipients are students like Taylor. She’s been attending American River College, majoring in business administration, and she hopes to transfer to a four-year university in 2012.

“It’s unfathomable to me that they would even consider eliminating such a successful program,” said Mike Clevenger, who works for the CalWORKs branch at American River College. “Jennifer [Taylor] is a shining example of what you’re supposed to do to move your life forward.”

In Sacramento County, despite a local unemployment rate of 11.8 percent in 2009, 6,500 CalWORKs recipients gained full-time employment last year, according to Paul Lake, acting director of the Department of Human Assistance.

But if the governor’s proposal goes through, not only would CalWORKs recipients lose their cash grants and services, but the county would have to add about 22,000 men, women and children to its general assistance rolls. That would cost the county about $40 million. “This would be a catastrophic burden on us,” Wagstaff said, adding, “I don’t think you can talk about how we would absorb it, because I don’t think we could absorb it.”

Frank Mecca, executive director for the California Welfare Directors Association said his organization is “taking nothing for granted.”

“We’re working hard to educate the Legislature and governor about how remarkably successful CalWORKs is and the important role it plays in preventing more than a million children from being plunged into homelessness and destitution,” said Mecca.

Although Mecca said he feels the Legislature “most certainly does not want to sign off on becoming the only state in the nation without a welfare-to-work program”—there are more than a few Republicans who believe as Sen. George Runner does, that the program is “too generous” and needs adjusting.

Runner sits on the Senate’s Human Services Committee, told SN&R that he believes the governor’s proposal is just “an opening position,” and that while he doesn’t feel the need for a full elimination of the program, he does think that the amount of CalWORKs’ monthly cash grants make the state a “magnet for the poor.”

“I think there are parts of the system that make sense—for example, job training and getting to school—but I think that California has been much more liberal in how we put out those resources than what we can afford,” Runner added.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for 2006 (the latest figures available), the maximum monthly benefits for a family of three with no income for the following states are as follows: Alaska is the highest at $923 per month, followed by California at $786 and New York with $691. California’s closest neighbors, Oregon and Nevada pay out $514 and $348, respectively.

CWDA’s Mecca takes umbrage with the idea that poor people are “just up and moving” to California to take advantage of the state’s welfare program.

“It hasn’t been proven and is intuitively hard to grasp,” he said.

For state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, there is no question of eliminating CalWORKs.

“It’s one of the most successful paid-to-work programs in the country, and we’re not going to do that—period,” said Steinberg. “What kind of civil society would not have a safety net for children? I’m not going to be any part of eliminating CalWORKs; it’s not going to happen.”

What Steinberg and other senate Democrats have proposed should happen, however, is to “realign” state dollars more closely with the county services they provide, thus providing more money to the counties, and, with it, more responsibility.

“We’ve cut this government so deeply,” Steinberg continued. He thinks the state could raise revenue for the counties by imposing an oil-severance tax on each barrel of oil extracted from California, and by permanently extending the state’s higher vehicle-license fee.

Taylor says the recession has changed the face of welfare. “You see these construction workers who have been at their professions for 20 years, and have never had to create a résumé, and now they have to, and they’re, like, ‘What’s a “keyword”?’” Taylor reported recently during an interview. “And now, everything is done online. You can’t talk to anyone in person anymore for a job,” she continued. “They tell you to go online and fill out their application. What do these guys know about going online?”

“What I’m saying is, how would we do this without CalWORKs? That’s what I’d like to ask the legislators and the governor. CalWORKs prepares you for that next job and actually makes you desirable. Why would they take that away?”