All parents should have the support they need to ensure economic security for their children and themselves. CalWORKs is California’s primary program to help families with children that are struggling to secure a basic income to meet their needs. Recent state reforms to CalWORKs are designed to improve the program’s capacity to effectively focus on supporting parents to identify goals, address barriers, and secure durable improvements in economic stability and family well-being.
However, state CalWORKs policy continues to threaten counties with financial penalties tied to the federally-defined Work Participation Rate (WPR), incentivizing counties and caseworkers to direct CalWORKs participants away from supportive activities to address barriers that do not fully count toward meeting the federal WPR.
Removing this threat of financial penalty could better align state policy with the CalWORKs program’s current focus, facilitating full implementation of strategies designed to effectively support parents and families in securing long-term stability and well-being. Policymakers also have options to build on these reforms to further support families participating in CalWORKs.
CalWORKs Participants Face Multiple Challenges to Securing Economic Security
CalWORKs is California’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and supports more than 300,000 families throughout the state, providing modest monthly cash grants while helping stabilize families and supporting parents in addressing barriers to employment and finding jobs.1For additional discussion of the CalWORKs program, recent reforms, work requirements, and the federal WPR, see also Esi Hutchful, Undercutting the Needs of California Families: The Harm of Racist, Sexist Work Requirements & Penalties in CalWORKs (California Budget & Policy Center, 2022). CalWORKs parents face a labor market in which gender- and race-based discrimination are ongoing, as well as workplace expectations and practices that make it difficult for parents to balance work with caregiving responsibilities. These dynamics significantly affect CalWORKs parents, who are predominantly women, people of color, and parents of young children.
CalWORKs parents also face an economy where a postsecondary credential is increasingly required to access all but the lowest-paying jobs. Yet nearly half of CalWORKs household heads do not have a high school degree or equivalent, reflecting structural barriers to education that many have encountered, again pointing to the effects of racism and sexism embodied by past and ongoing policies and practices across a variety of domains.2Adriana Ramos-Yamamoto and Monica Davalos, Confronting Racism, Overcoming COVID-19, & Advancing Health Equity (California Budget & Policy Center, 2021).
In addition, many CalWORKs parents also experience significant health challenges. Among parents completing appraisals of strengths and barriers at program entry, 28% faced mental health challenges, 5% struggled with substance abuse, and 18% had faced domestic abuse.3Data reflect the share of CalWORKs participants recommended for services to address mental health, substance abuse, or domestic abuse among those completing Online CalWORKs Appraisal Tool (OCAT) assessments during fiscal year 2019-20. Source: Budget Center analysis of Department of Social Services data from Department of Social Services, CalWORKs Annual Summary (November 2022). These additional barriers can negatively affect both parents’ employment prospects and their families’ broader well-being.
Supporting Parents to Address Barriers Can Improve Long-Term Employment and Child and Family Well-Being
There are multiple reasons for the CalWORKs program to prioritize supporting parents in addressing the barriers they face:
- Challenges related to limited education and mental health, substance use, and domestic abuse barriers limit parents’ capacity to work at all and limit the quality of jobs parents can secure. Addressing these barriers improves parents’ likelihood of success in securing and retaining jobs and improves parents’ access to jobs with higher pay and more job security over the short-term and the long-term.
- Addressing these challenges also promotes child well-being and family stability. Parental struggles with mental health, substance use, and domestic abuse are risk factors linked to child neglect leading to child welfare involvement.4Lindsey Palmer, et al. “What Does Child Protective Services Investigate as Neglect? A Population-Based Study.” Child Maltreatment (July 13, 2022), doi: 10.1177/10775595221114144. Supporting parents to address these challenges can help families stabilize and safely remain intact, facilitating prevention of child maltreatment and the need for child removal and foster care placement.
Recent State Reforms to CalWORKs Recognize that Effective and Respectful Services Should Focus on Supporting Families…
Recognizing the significant challenges facing CalWORKs families – and the importance of respectfully addressing these challenges to enable families to secure long-term stability – in recent years state policymakers have made several changes to CalWORKs policy intended to improve support for participants.
Through Senate Bill 1041 of 2012, California established its own CalWORKs participation standards that are distinct from federal standards.5Senate Bill 1041 (Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review, Chapter 47, Statutes of 2012). These state standards include no rigid time limits on activities to address barriers or advance education, treating these activities as equal to employment activities for demonstrating engaged program participation.
The state has also adopted an evidence-based behavioral approach to guide families in setting goals (CalWORKs 2.0) and created more holistic outcome measures to evaluate the program (the California CalWORKs Outcome and Accountability Review or Cal-OAR). California also implemented a voluntary home visiting program to support family health and engaged parenting.
… But Continued Threat of County Penalties Linked to the Federal Work Participation Rate Hinders Full Implementation of Reforms
These recent constructive CalWORKs reforms are hindered from full implementation, however, because state policy continues to threaten counties with potential financial penalties linked to the Workforce Participation Rate as defined by federal TANF rules.
The federal government defines success for state TANF programs not based on how well the programs meet families’ needs, but only based on whether programs meet specific WPR targets, determined by the percentage of parents receiving assistance that are engaged in a narrowly-defined set of welfare-to-work activities. These federal activities focus on getting parents into paid employment as quickly as possible, despite the fact that such work requirements have racist and sexist roots and research suggests they do not lead to meaningful long-term improvements in employment and are linked to increases in deep poverty.6Elisa Minoff, The Racist Roots of Work Requirements (Center for the Study of Social Policy, February 2020); LaDonna Pavetti, TANF Studies Show Work Requirement Proposals for Other Programs Would Harm Millions, Do Little to Increase Work (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, November 2018). Like many other states, California has sometimes struggled to meet its federal WPR targets. The state has at times been required to submit appeals and corrective plans, but has never had to pay a WPR penalty.
Current state policy would require counties that miss federal WPR targets to pay half of any financial penalty the state received for not meeting targets. This policy incentivizes counties and caseworkers to direct CalWORKs participants into the narrowly-defined activities that count toward meeting the federal WPR. However, the federal WPR does not acknowledge the value of fully supporting parents to address education and health barriers. Many activities to address barriers faced by large shares of CalWORKs participants – that the state approves without time limits for participants to meet state CalWORKs participation expectations – do not fully count toward meeting the federal WPR.
The Federal WPR Does Not Fully Count Activities That Address Barriers Faced by Many CalWORKs Participants
|State-Approved Barrier Removal That Does Not Fully Count for Federal WPR||Share of CalWORKs Participants Assessed With Need for Barrier Removal|
|Adult basic education or secondary education (e.g., high school or GED), for participants without a high school or equivalent degree||Nearly 1 in 2 heads of household lack a high school or equivalent degree|
|Mental health services||More than 1 in 4 participants recommended for mental health services|
|Substance abuse services||About 1 in 20 participants recommended for substance abuse services|
|Domestic abuse services||More than 1 in 6 participants recommended for domestic abuse services|
*Note: Federal rules limit countable participation in listed education activities to no more than 10 hours per week, and limit countable participation in mental health, substance abuse, and domestic abuse services to no more than four consecutive weeks, not to exceed six weeks in a 12-month period. CalWORKs participant data reflect the share of CalWORKs participants recommended for services to address mental health, substance abuse, or domestic abuse among those completing Online CalWORKs Appraisal Tool (OCAT) assessments during fiscal year 2019-20.
Source: Budget Center analysis of Department of Social Services data, Congressional Research Service
Removing County Liability for Federal WPR Targets Could Better Align State Policy with Recent CalWORKs Reforms
Threatening to penalize counties financially for not meeting federal WPR targets creates an incentive for counties to direct parents away from activities to address barriers that may be their best investments to improve stability and long-term employment prospects – and toward more narrowly-defined “work-first” activities that may not be in families’ best long-term interests but will meet rigid federal WPR criteria. This financial penalty policy therefore works at cross-purposes with extensive recent CalWORKs reform efforts. Repealing this policy could better align state policy with the CalWORKs program’s current focus, facilitating full implementation of strategies designed to effectively support parents and families in securing long-term stability and well-being.
State Policymakers Have Options to Further Build on Recent Reforms to Support CalWORKs Parents and Families
Additional state changes to CalWORKs program rules could extend recent reforms to further bolster support for parents and children. Examples include:
- Continuing to increase the size of cash grants to enable families to cover their costs to meet basic needs,
- Expanding policies and practices that help parents avoid and quickly resolve sanctions that reduce access to cash grants,
- Reducing sanction penalties in order to minimize negative impacts on child and parent basic needs and well-being, and
- Recognizing county performance that demonstrates strong participant engagement and effectively identifies and addresses participant barriers.
As California’s primary program to help families that are struggling to secure a basic income to meet their needs, CalWORKs provides a unique opportunity to support thousands of children and parents in addressing the challenges of poverty and the barriers put before them. Continuing to align state policy and build on recent reforms can help CalWORKs reach its potential to help ensure that every California child and family can thrive.