SACRAMENTO — More than 110,000 welfare recipients--roughly half from Los Angeles County--will lose money and other government aid next January when California's welfare-to-work program begins to cut benefits to poor families that reach a five-year lifetime limit on assistance.
Like other welfare reform efforts across the country, the CalWORKS program seeks to move as many people as possible off state welfare rolls and into the world of work. It has been more successful than many anticipated, thanks in part to a strong economy for much of the time that allowed welfare recipients to find work and leave welfare.
As a result, fewer welfare recipients are expected to hit the lifetime limit than many initially feared. Under federal law, the limit takes effect automatically for most welfare recipients when they receive aid for 60 months. Because CalWORKS was not implemented until 1998, California welfare recipients will not start hitting the limit until 2003.
Nonetheless, the long-term consequences of time limits in the nation's most populous state are expected to be significant, and thus are being closely watched as an indicator of the challenges still facing welfare reform nationwide.
Several other states already have extended some or all of the benefits that welfare recipients were to lose when the limits took effect by paying for them with state funds instead of federal dollars. And some California legislators, concerned about the personal and economic impacts of the limits, are introducing similar bills intended to soften the blow.
Although they will lose only the adult's portion of their family grants, more families are expected to be affected by welfare time limits in California than anywhere else in the nation. And like those in other states, most California parents expected to hit the limits share a common characteristic--they have found at least some work, but their jobs pay too little to support their families.
More than half of the adults expected to lose assistance in January are already employed, but still would fall near or below the federal poverty line without government assistance. The average single-parent family on welfare is expected to lose about $130 a month.
For many, that represents roughly a fourth of their household government income.
"The jobs that people are getting just don't allow them to leave aid. They are not making enough to become independent," said Casey McKeever of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "That was an inherent problem with CalWORKS. There was not an effort to make sure these people would get jobs that allowed them to meet basic needs."
The state Department of Social Services is combing the welfare rolls to determine how many people will be affected by the time limits. It recently estimated that 114,000 adult welfare recipients from 94,000 households--roughly 18% of the CalWORKS population--will reach the lifetime limit at the start of next year.
An average of 1,300 families will then hit the limit every month thereafter and will see their benefits cut as they do. Most live in Los Angeles County, which alone has a larger welfare caseload than 48 of the 50 states. In Orange County, officials estimate that roughly 3,000 welfare recipients will lose aid at the start of next year. In Ventura County, the early estimate is 775.
The state's preliminary analysis points to other problems that will make further reducing welfare rolls difficult. Notably, it found that many of those who have not found work or are working but still need assistance are immigrants who do not speak English. Statewide, 35% of the adult recipients who are expected to hit the limits do not speak English as their primary language. In Alameda County, 64% primarily spoke a language other than English.
The effects of such losses will likely be drawn out over time, some experts say, starting with such red flags as occasionally missing rent and utility payments. But others predict more immediate--and severe--social and economic consequences.
"Those families are going to become homeless," said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness. "They are using the cash grant for rent, because rents are so high. They are using that cash grant to live. I would challenge anyone, starting with the governor, to explain how this is not going to result in increased homelessness."
Single Mother of Four Struggles to Survive
The cut in benefits will prove particularly difficult for recipients such as Charlenta Howard, a 38-year-old single mother of four from South-Central Los Angeles.
Howard, who said she "never worked a day in my life" until 1999, tried but was unable to maintain a $7-an-hour job as a dispatcher with a security guard company because her two oldest children began getting into trouble and giving in to the temptations of gang life.