Brown shifts focus of welfare program

As he tries to cut $9 billion or so to balance the state's budget, Gov. Jerry Brown has very limited flexibility. Unfortunately for the poor, CalWORKS, the state's principal welfare program, is one of the few programs he can cut. Brown proposes to slash funding for CalWORKS by nearly $1 billion. When reduced eligibility for child care and other job help services are included, the cut amounts to more than $1.4 billion.
But more is involved in this budget proposal than cuts and budget savings.
Brown also seeks to refocus the goals of the state's welfare system on work. He would end work exemptions for most mothers with young children and increase the amount of earned income recipients can keep from $112 to $200, without triggering a reduction in their grants.
However, to pay for those changes, Brown would cut grant levels to those unable to meet work requirements so severely it is almost certain to increase homelessness among the poorest and most vulnerable families. He also cuts eligibility from 48 months to 24 months for those who fail to meet work requirements, 30 hours of unsubsidized work per week.
And he seeks to impose the shorter time limits retroactively. So, if the new limits go into effect in October 2012 as proposed, families who've already reached the time limits would have just six months to find up to 30 hours of employment per week, before the adult portion of their grant would end. The child-only portion of the grant would be cut from $463 a month to just $392.
Last year, when the state cut CalWORKS grants by 8 percent and reduced time limits from 60 months to 48 months, there was no grace period. Many recipients suddenly cut from aid were left homeless. Los Angeles County reported a 600 percent increase in request for homeless aid. There is a real danger that will happen again with this year's cuts.
The governor's proposal favors the most work-ready of welfare families. It penalizes the least able, the mentally ill often, or victims of domestic violence or substance abusers. It doesn't just penalize adults; it hurts children too. While the policy refocus on work is a good thing, a minimal safety net needs to be preserved. Brown fails on that score.
Finally, if the goal is welfare-to-work, Brown should rethink his wrongheaded veto of a bill last year that would have allowed welfare recipients to keep a car regardless of its value. The correlation between reliable transportation and a job in California is very strong.
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