THE BLOG
06/24/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

More Investment in CalWORKs Needed To Slow Growing Poverty Rate

Well, California has reached agreement on a budget. And this budget makes good progress toward reinvesting in important programs that benefit low-income people in California: It provides more funds for schools that serve low-income children in K-12, restores dental benefits for people on MediCal and increases funding for child care so that women can work knowing that their children are safe and taken care of.

No, I certainly can't argue with any of that.

But the thing is, I can't stop thinking about the women I heard testify during state Assembly and Senate budget subcommittee hearings this spring. They described what it is really like to live in poverty in California. They talked about not being able to work because they did not have reliable transportation or affordable child care. They talked about not being able to afford housing in safe neighborhoods and fearing for their children's safety. They talked about fearing tomorrow because tomorrow they might not be able to pay for rent, because tomorrow they might lose their home, because tomorrow their children might be homeless.

Yes, we have a balanced budget in California, but I doubt it will do much to make things better for women like LeAna Powell. LeAna lives in East Oakland and is working against the clock to lift her family out of poverty: Her 24-month time limit to receive CalWORKs cash benefits (our state's welfare-to-work program) is about to expire. Because of the combined effect of the last three years of cuts to CalWORKs and the new time restrictions, it has become increasingly difficult for mothers like LeAna to become self-sufficient and move themselves and their families out of poverty.

California's poverty rate has been steadily increasing over the past five years and it's now at almost 25 percent, according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure. Today more than one in five children in California lives in poverty.

Yes, our budget is balanced, but I can't stop thinking about Kayla, a little girl who just started kindergarten, and is now going to an afterschool program. Almost two years ago, her mother made the hard decision to leave an abusive marriage and, as a result, they had to turn to CalWORKs for temporary support. Kayla just got accepted into an afterschool program after being waitlisted for a whole year, which is great news because Kayla's mom will be able to find full-time work and not worry about picking up Kayla after school. But the thing is Kayla's mom has been unemployed for a long time. She's been looking, but she hasn't been able to find work because she was looking during the worst recession in generations -- even people with college degrees couldn't find work. In a couple of months, the cash assistance that she receives from CalWORKs will go from $480 to $317 per month. How will she pay rent and take care of Kayla?

Studies show that poverty takes a tremendous toll on children. The economic and psychological stresses experienced by women like Kayla's mom have been found to have complex consequences on their children. Poverty literally obstructs children's brain development. Poverty slows the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls self-regulation, decision-making and judgment. Poverty results in poorer cognitive development and lower educational attainment that will impact an individual for her entire life.

Poverty is shortchanging our future.

That's why the Women's Foundation of California supported Assemblymember Holly Mitchell's plan to increase the CalWORKs grant by 12 percent starting January 2014.

Over the last three years, the amount that a family can receive through CalWORKs has been reduced by 12 percent and Mitchell was hoping to reinstate it. In addition, the purchasing power of CalWORKs grants has dropped by more than half since 1989 and 1990, while the actual grant dollar amount has stayed the same.

We supported the Mitchell Plan because we know that an increase in the CalWORKs grant would be good for California's women and children: four out of five people who receive CalWORKs cash benefits are children, while more than 90 percent of single-parent households that receive CalWORKs assistance are headed by women.

Ultimately, the legislature chose to increase the CalWORKs grant by just five percent. We know that's better than nothing and we appreciate any kind of reinvestment into CalWORKs. And we understand that building a responsible budget is a balancing act and that everyone must feel some pain.

But we can't lose sight of how hard single moms like LeAna and Kayla's mom are working to create a better life for their children. And because of the recent cuts to cash grants and the new time limitations, they have even less time to find work at the same time that our state is still experiencing a challenging job market.

CalWORKs has the potential to be a program that serves as a launching pad out of poverty and into economic self-sufficiency. By substantially increasing our investment in CalWORKs, we will be taking an important step to ensuring that we are recommitting ourselves to making California a model for the nation -- a place where equity and economic security are a reality for all women and families.

These mothers and their children are assets to our state and our future. If we don't invest in them, engage them and cultivate their potential, they will ultimately become a cost for years to come.