05/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Californians in Crisis: Nothing Left to Sacrifice

The downturn in the economy has affected every American, but people responded in different ways depending on their individual financial situation. For some it meant clipping coupons instead of paying full price at the store, for others it meant moving in with family members when they lose their home, and yet for others it meant deciding not to buy that vacation house they were planning on, or perhaps downgrading from a Mercedes to a Volvo.

But what happens to people who do not have the ability to 'downgrade'? People who before the recession began were already barely keeping their heads above water, who already had to rely on both food stamps and coupons to afford two meals a day, who already lived with relatives or in tiny apartments or in shelters, and who never dreamed of being able to afford any type of car. What sacrifices can these mothers, fathers, and children afford to make when the economy takes a turn for the worse? The answer is clear: none.

For years the poorest people in California, generally women and children, turned to the state's CalWORKs program to make ends meet. Commonly known as welfare, CalWORKs is the state's version of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), designed to provide low or no income parents with limited financial support -- up to $694 per month for a family of three, an amount that is less than half the official poverty level. Unfortunately, like the families CalWORKs supports the state currently finds itself in serious financial jeopardy. In order to reduce the $26.2 billion deficit, Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed a range of cuts to publicly funded programs. Should the decrease in funding be enacted, Californian residents can not depend on the next governor to reinstate funding for programs like TANF, as Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed cuts to the safety net have been enthusiastically endorsed by Republican gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner.

For CalWORKs, these cuts mean gutting a program that has served as a safety net to mothers and their children during very tough times. Previously, needy parents could receive benefits for 60 consecutive months. However, if the proposed changes are enacted parents will only be able to collect aid for 48 months and then will have to 'sit out' for the next year. Taking a year of benefits away from parents at a time when unemployment in California is at 12.4% and poor parents have no other options cannot possibly be the answer to California's budget woes.

The proposed changes to CalWORKs would also increase financial penalties against parents who are found not to have complied with program requirements. Parents should be able to meet the requirements, but it is not always that easy. Sometimes the welfare agency does not know that parents had a good reason not to comply, and the suggested cuts could penalize parents with legitimate conflicts by reducing benefits even if they miss a meeting due to illness or do not get a job because they cannot find child care. It is also important to remember that parents aren't the only people suffering when aid is decreased. Children also depend on the benefits the program provides, and they have no control over whether their parents work or if they meet CalWORKs requirements.

Finally, the Governor has proposed cutting monthly grant payments by 15.7 percent, reducing state reimbursements for child care providers, and eliminating the Recent Noncitizen Entrants program, which provides CalWORKs benefits to legal immigrants who have been in the United States for less than five years. It seems the Governor imagines there is some leeway to be had here, but even at its current level CalWORKs benefits are inadequate and only reach a minority of families living in poverty, leaving too many poor. Cutting the program will diminish the benefits for those lucky enough to continue to be covered by CalWORKs while simultaneously pulling the financial rug out from under others who will no longer receive aid.

Strangely enough, for all the harm the proposal does to needy families it does little to help California's $26.2 billion fiscal problem. The Governor's plan will reduce benefits to families by $600 million while only saving the state $120 million. This is due to the fact that if the program continues as is the Federal Government would pay for 80% of the costs. That's $600 million that parents will not have to spend in the state's struggling economic market, which could use the financial activity, traded in for only $120 million in savings in state funds.

CalWORKs was created to serve as a safety net for families with no other opportunities and no options. Cutting funding for the program will not simply make those currently benefiting from it sacrifice more to stay afloat, as they have nothing left to sacrifice. That's the point of a safety net - it's a last resort and there's nothing underneath.

While California does need to make tough choices to decrease its deficit, safety net cuts will have the greatest effect on the people with the fewest options. Surely there is a better formula for a state, or country for that matter, that needs to get back on its feet.