July 3 2012 09:58 AM

California slashed cash aid, childcare and job training while you weren’t looking

Jerry Brown
Photo by David Rolland

Sacramento is 500 miles away from San Diego. Even in the age of instant information, that distance sometimes seems too great for news from the capital to really reach us. But, of course, it has nothing to do with the space between two points; for whatever reason, the business of state government just seems to be an abstraction for a lot of us here. So, the purpose of this editorial will be more informational, and less persuasive in nature, than it usually is—something of a public service, maybe food for thought as you celebrate Independence Day.

In August 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, known more commonly as “welfare reform.” Initiated by Republicans under the new leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the idea behind it was that welfare needed to be more than just a handout; it needed to spur recipients to find work and get off aid. To implement the law in California, the state Legislature in 1997 created the California Work Opportunities and Responsibility to Kids program, better known as CalWORKS.

Under CalWORKS, the state’s 58 counties set up systems for impoverished parents who were receiving cash aid to get services: help with writing résumés and interviewing, placement in school or vocational training, childcare subsidies, treatment for substance abuse or mental-health problems. These were the carrots; the stick was a new time limit for receiving monthly cash grants—parents would continue to get money for their kids, but the money for the parents themselves would be cut off for good after five years of cumulative assistance. But it’s not like the state would hand money directly to small children. It would still go to the parents; families would simply get less money to make ends meet.

Thanks to plummeting tax revenues caused by the recession, the state cut the CalWORKS budget significantly between 2009 and 2011—to the tune of $780 million. Cash payments decreased by 12 percent. Employment services, childcare subsidies and mental-health and substance-abuse treatment were slashed. Intensive case management for pregnant or parenting teens was suspended. And the five-year cumulative time limit was reduced to four. Meanwhile, California’s overall caseload rose. More and more people are needing help, but there’s less and less help available for them, and the clock on their time limit continues to tick.

This past January, facing another multi-billiondollar state deficit, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed the most dramatic downsizing of welfare in California to date—a $1.4-billion reduction. Cash aid would be further reduced, requirements for receiving aid would be strengthened, funding for subsidized childcare would be slashed and the cumulative time limit for assistance would be cut yet again. According to a February analysis by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, 74 percent of families on assistance would have seen their aid decreased or eliminated altogether under Brown’s proposal.

Fortunately, Democrats in the Legislature resisted, and in the final budget deal reached last week, cuts were a lot less severe. Still, the time limit for parents new to CalWORKS to receive cash and services was cut to two years, and funding for subsidized childcare was reduced by 8.7 percent—meaning there will be roughly 10,500 fewer childcare slots available. Subsequently, Brown used his line-item budget-cutting authority to slash even more childcare funding, resulting in a loss of an additional 3,400 childcare slots.

Talk to anyone who works with people in poverty, and they’ll tell you that a lack of affordable childcare is one of the biggest barriers to employment. That’s true in the best of times. These aren’t the best of times. The unemployment rate in the state is high at 10.8 percent and is expected to remain in the double digits until sometime next year, according to the UCLA Anderson Forecast, which predicts that California won’t see pre-recession job numbers again until 2015, when the jobless rate is expected to be down to 7.2 percent—still much higher than 2007’s 5.3 percent. And even if there were adequate childcare and abundant jobs, a lot of these folks need vocational training if they’re going to earn a salary that will support a family.

All this amounts to increased poverty and its far-reaching attendant problems. We’d love to say that a yes vote on Brown’s November tax measure will restore the CalWORKS budget, but that money, if it materializes, is already spent. Happy Fourth of July!

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