California's welfare-to-work program faces tighter limits

Published: Thursday, Jun. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 28, 2012 - 9:35 am

Linda Iben never imagined herself a welfare mom.

A longtime administrative assistant, she had worked her whole adult life. But when her position with a nonprofit group disappeared in January 2010, jobs were scarce.

Iben, 52, decided to train to become a dental assistant and finished near the top of her class, she said. But when she started handing out her résumé, "I found that everyone was looking for someone with experience."

With a teenage son to raise, her unemployment benefits nearly exhausted and a mortgage to pay, Iben turned to CalWORKs, the state's welfare-to-work program.

"I have always been self-sufficient," Iben said. "But there comes a time when you have to make sure you can keep your home and take care of your children and other responsibilities, and I am so grateful for this program."

Her monthly grant of about $500 "is not enough to run my household, but it helps me limp along" with the help of CalFresh food benefits, she said. Iben is taking part in a jobs program through CalWORKs and is confident she will find work by the time her benefits run out.

CalWORKs benefits, which have taken deep cuts from the state's budget knife in these recessionary times, are again on the chopping block. Once credited with cutting welfare caseloads by half, the program will be spared further reductions in monthly grants, which were cut by 8 percent last year to an average of $460 for a family of three.

But Gov. Jerry Brown wanted lawmakers to refocus the program on helping parents find work by reducing by half the amount of time CalWORKs parents like Iben can get aid if they cannot secure a job. The changes will not result in immediate savings because past months on aid do not count toward the stricter time limit, so recipients will not lose aid in the next year under the new rules.

Brown and lawmakers in the meantime expect to save $469 million by continuing to suspend child care and job training for parents of young children and requiring fewer eligibility checks for some CalWORKs families.

With a few exceptions, the new rules ultimately will cut off aid and services to CalWORKs recipients if they cannot find jobs after 24 months. They "are going to be a challenge for many of our clients, especially for those who don't have the education or skills" to compete in the job market, said Kathryn Harwell, a deputy director in the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance.

Things could have been worse, welfare officials and advocates for the poor acknowledged. Last year, CalWORKs grants were reduced to their lowest level in more than 20 years. Still, they said, each program cut further undermines its mission to put people back to work and help them become independent.

"While this budget is not great for CalWORKs clients, it doesn't include more cuts to cash aid, so the immediate impact will be less. It at least allows people to keep a roof over their heads," said Mike Herald, a lobbyist with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown's finance department, said tighter time limits will "help focus the program back to its original intent, which is to move people to self-sufficiency and employment." In an economy that seems to be improving, two years is a reasonable amount of time to "transition and get prepared" to enter the job market, he said.

When it approved its federally mandated overhaul of the welfare system in the late 1990s, California lawmakers hailed a comprehensive approach that would move people from public assistance to the workforce.

For years, CalWORKs seemed to do just that as welfare rolls declined.

"We reduced the time on aid for the average person to about 23 months, and we reduced caseloads by more than half," said Herald.

Then, in 2007, the economy began to tank and unemployment started to rise. Welfare rolls began to grow again just as the state budget deficit ballooned and lawmakers were faced with slashing funding for everything from education to social programs.

CalWORKs now serves about 575,000 households. Families receive monthly cash grants pegged to family size, and parents must either work or engage in activities designed to lead to employment. They get various services, including job search assistance, job training and vouchers for transportation and child care.

Prior to last year, the program's "lifetime benefits" were capped at 60 months. That dropped to 48 months in 2011. The new 24- month time clock, which takes effect in January, "will negatively affect families that need the most help," said Herald, including those who have been forced into entirely new lines of work as jobs have disappeared.

Some exemptions are built into the new rules. For example, counties can ignore the time limit for parents who show progress toward a job or live in areas with high unemployment. Parents also would be able to appeal county decisions to cut off aid and services after two years.

Placer County still is assessing the potential impact of the latest budget proposal on its CalWORKs clients, said Cheryl Davis, director of human services. She noted the new time limit on receiving CalWORKs aid will affect new applicants but not those already getting aid.

Placer, like counties across the state, is seeing a new category of welfare recipient in recent years, said Davis. "The prolonged recession has meant that some families in Placer County who never thought they would need government assistance" are applying, she said.

Every state in the country has imposed deep cuts on welfare programs during the economic downturn, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget Priorities. Many have benefit levels as low as California's or lower.

But California's cost of living is higher than most, advocates said, so recipients get less for their money.

Welfare rolls in the past year have declined slightly in California. In Sacramento County, average CalWORKs caseloads dipped from about 35,000 last year to about 33,700 this year, officials said. But advocates remain wary.

"We are interpreting those numbers to mean that there is a little bit more stability in the labor market. A few more people are able to find employment," said Harwell. "But things are definitely not where we would like to see them." Thousands of people, she said, "still need this safety net."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert



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