California budget deal: Advocates for the poor concerned about changes to CalWorks

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A big part of Thursday's budget deal between Governor Brown and Democratic lawmakers concerns CalWorks, the state’s welfare to work program. Democratic leaders had resisted cutting CalWorks’ cash assistance when unemployment is still so high. Now they say they’ve found a “middle ground” that they can live with.

The governor got his wish to shorten the time parents can collect CalWorks cash assistance from four years to two if they fail to find work. But he dropped a plan to shrink grants for children whose parents have already exhausted their benefits.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg called that a victory.

"The struggle and the negotiation and some of the controversy is worth it when you can do even a little bit more — and I think in this case, a lot more — to help people who are just trying to make it." Steinberg said.

The change will only affect people who join CalWorks in the future. It’s expected to save the state $400 million. Under the compromise, CalWorks recipients who haven’t found work after two years will have a chance to stay in the program, but they’ll have to meet more stringent federal requirements.

Advocates for the poor fear that applying the federal rules in the future could knock half of the people in CalWorks out of the program. Yolanda Arias with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles predicts most will be mothers.

"The typical family on CalWorks is a single mom with two children," Arias said. "So the loss of her part of the grant is a third of the monthly income. That has a devastating impact on their ability to stay housed and stay fed."

Counties will have the option of extending state benefits past the two-year point if the parent is close to completing education or training, close to finding a job or living in an area with high unemployment.

But Mike Herald with the Western Center on Law and Poverty says that won’t help many who depend on CalWorks.

"Someone with low education and a learning disability who is not going to be able to go through the college and an adult education program at the same pace that other people are — they’re the people who will be harmed by this," Herald said.

The legislature plans to vote on the budget deal Tuesday.

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