As the US tightens labor rules, California considers relaxing them

California also exempts many families from employment rules. For those subject to them, the state in 2012 created a more flexible list of activities beyond the strict federal definitions of work.

The state risks some recipients not counting toward the federal work metric. It’s a path other liberal states have taken, said Heather Hahn, a national expert at the Urban Institute.

“States are doing these things that can be seen as workarounds, because working with the (federal rules) feels contrary to their goals of helping people achieve economic success,” Hahn said.

A chance at university

Most notably, some low-income parents in California receive cash aid while they attend college, which counts toward the state’s employment rules.

That has been a lifeline for Summer Pratt.

The 42-year-old mother from Grass Valley signed up for CalWORKs when she enrolled in Sierra College. She had two children to support and no income after her divorce. She is studying Early Childhood Development and Entrepreneurship: First Steps in her plans to open a family daycare.

“The money itself has been a great help in allowing me to spend time with my children and do school work, and in allowing me to not have to enter the workforce yet,” Pratt said.

Advocates and social workers say CalWORKs is far from effective in giving people who must work or look for work a stable, long-term path out of poverty.

“We keep people from drowning,” said Nolan Sullivan, director of the Yolo County health and human services agency. “To stabilize families, to allow them to climb this ladder, this is not enough.”

Yolo County has the highest poverty rate in the state.

To qualify for CalWORKs, a single parent with one child cannot earn more than $1,300 a month. Typically, when someone enters the program, that person is already in extreme poverty, given California’s high cost of living, Sullivan said, and many arrive with significant trauma.

Advocates say recipients face high barriers to finding and keeping stable jobs that pay enough to raise children. State figures show that 45% of people required to participate in work activities do not have a high school diploma.

Many need childcare and transportation. One in five have experienced domestic violence and nearly a third report mental health problems, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.

at work but poor

Cathy Senderling, director of the California Welfare Directors Association, said giving recipients experiencing such challenges a list of required activities can create “adversarial” relationships with social workers.

Parents can be on CalWORKs for up to five years. Those who leave and find work often bring home a low income.

Just before the pandemic upended the economy, 18,000 former welfare recipients earned income from their jobs a year after leaving CalWORKs, according to the California Department of Social Services. In the first three months of 2020, those former recipients earned an average of $5,800, about $23,000 a year.

Assemblyman Joaquín Arámbula, D-Fresno, and his supporters are pushing a proposal that relaxes many of the state’s rules in favor of a more individualized approach.

Instead of giving recipients a list of allowed Welfare-to-Work activities to complete, county social workers would develop a plan that takes into account recipients’ individual circumstances and addresses needs for child care, health care mental or other social services.

“Today, counties ask recipients to meet certain requirements, and we’re saying recipients should be able to come to counties and say, ‘These are the things I need first as a family,’” said Christopher Sanchez, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

culture change

The state’s proposal includes reducing penalties, which are penalties counties impose on recipients who don’t follow their welfare rules. Penalties come in the form of cutting off cash aid for the adult; Advocates say it’s counterproductive to punish struggling families by further restricting benefits.

Arámbula’s proposal would essentially eliminate penalties if beneficiaries are unable to complete their plans due to a lack of child care or “physical, mental, emotional or other family circumstances.”

Like all major changes to social services, how this policy is implemented will depend on the county welfare agencies responsible for implementation.

Sullivan, in Yolo County, said some social workers believe the threat of sanctions is “one of the only tools they have to get people to change their lives.”

He predicted the proposal would run into a cultural divide among county social workers, who are divided on how rigid and rule-based welfare should be.

“You can’t legislate a culture change,” he said.