California must increase the CalWORKs grant to keep children out of deep poverty
SB 982 is an investment to lift children out of deep poverty and allow them to thrive, ultimately saving taxpayer dollars

Blog post Frank J. Mecca

California is officially the fifth- largest economy in the world, unemployment is low, and our state is prospering. Yet, we also have the stain of the highest rate of children living in poverty in the nation. California’s coffers are filling up, but our social safety net programs intended to lift families out of poverty aren’t doing enough to meet the high costs it takes to live here. A stark example of this is that for the eleventh year in a row, California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program grant levels are below deep poverty (defined as 50 percent of the federal poverty level).

CalWORKs provides cash assistance to families with children who need help with housing, food, utilities or clothing, as well as welfare-to-work activities for adults, such as attending job training or furthering their education. Approximately 80 percent of CalWORKs recipients are children.

Although CalWORKs is helping hundreds of thousands of low-income children stave off abject destitution, the grants aren’t even meeting their basic needs.  Small and infrequent grant increases (and some decreases) over the last twenty years have left grants relatively stagnant. Rather than providing an adequate safety-net, these stagnating grants – coupled with sky-rocketing housing costs – have made it nearly impossible to lift California’s stain of childhood poverty.

Thousands of kids in the program live in deep poverty; an alarming and increasing number of them are homeless. And we know the human consequences of deep poverty are numerous and costly.

For children, deep poverty can cause toxic stress that harms brain development and early functioning, disrupting their ability to succeed in school and in life. Imagine as a child not knowing when you will be able to eat next, if you’ll be forced to sleep in a shelter tomorrow or if you can make it to school the next day; those real anxieties are oftentimes coupled with other traumatic events. Even a short amount of time in deep poverty can derail a child emotionally, psychologically, physically and educationally. These negative effects last through adulthood. Children who live in deep poverty are less likely to graduate high school, more likely to have poor health, and more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system. They are also three times as likely to be deeply poor as adults compared to children that do not grow up in deep poverty.

The maximum CalWORKs grant for a family of three is only $100 more per month than it was twenty years ago. The maximum grant would be about $400 more had it been adjusted for inflation annually. In fact, the maximum CalWORKs grant has lost one-third of its purchasing power in the last decade; and the average grant families actually receive is only at 42 percent of the federal poverty line. It’s especially difficult for low-income families to afford housing in the rising California market and still be able to pay for important necessities like child care and health care.

That’s why CWDA is cosponsoring Senator Holly Mitchell’s (D-Los Angeles) Ending Childhood Deep Poverty Bill, SB 982 with a strong coalition of groups including, Parent Voices, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Children’s Defense Fund, National Association of Social Workers, and many others.  SB 982 and its corresponding budget request will increase cash assistance for CalWORKs recipients, ensuring that no child lives in deep poverty while participating in program. It’s a wise investment to make sure no child in the CalWORKs program falls below 50 percent of the federal poverty line, an action that will have an enormous impact on children’s lives and futures. It will mean better health outcomes for them and improved educational achievement, leading to quality employment opportunities and higher earnings later in life. Taxpayers will also benefit from healthier, more productive adults in the long run, as will our communities.

Yes, our state has much to be proud of, but we cannot tout California as a progressive state if we are leaving tens of thousands of children to grow up in deep poverty. We can and must make this wise investment to change lives and improve children’s futures and, as a result, California’s future as well.