California is the nation’s welfare queen: The state accounts for one-third of America’s welfare recipients, though it only contains one-eighth of the population, and there’s no good reason for it.
Some of California’s welfare problem can be attributed to its particularly severe economic slump (California’s unemployment rate is 2.7 percentage points above the national average). But states in similar situations have significantly smaller caseloads; for example, Nevada, with the nation’s highest unemployment, at 11.7 percent, has a welfare-participation rate about one-quarter of California’s. In California, 3.8 percent of the population receives monthly welfare checks. In no other state is more than 3 percent of the population on the dole.
Some may assume that the illegal-immigrant population in California expands its welfare rolls. But in Texas, which also has a large illegal-immigrant population, less than one half of one percent of the population receives welfare.
The main reason that California is so dependent on welfare is its uniquely lax enforcement of the provisions of the 1996 welfare reforms. As part of the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the federal government put in place a set of regulations on welfare payments to help or encourage recipients to return to work, such as the five-year lifetime limit on benefits.
California, however, is one of nine states that don’t unconditionally enforce this supposedly nationwide provision. Even when adults do exhaust their welfare payments in California, under the Safety Net Program, the minors in their families continue to receive checks. Only three other states have similar policies. Unsurprisingly, three-fourths of California’s welfare recipients are 18 years old and younger.
A 2009 Public Policy Institute study showed that strengthening the enforcement mechanism by moving from “California’s current grant-reducing sanction to a policy of gradual or immediate grant elimination” for recipients who fail to comply with welfare’s work-participation requirements “would reduce California’s welfare caseload, substantially increase its work participation rate, and slightly reduce poverty among children with single mothers.” The effects of decreasing the time limit itself are harder to predict, but the study indicated that doing so would, at least, not harm welfare recipients to a measurable degree.
Efforts to reduce the size of monthly checks in order to cut costs have been, at best, a temporary solution for California. Work-participation rates continued to lag behind the rest of the country. By 2010, only 22 percent of welfare recipients met the minimum federal work requirements. In this case, the cost of the program is a cosmetic concern, concealing persistent structural problems.
It wasn’t until his 2007, 2008, and 2009 state budgets that then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed reforms to the most important provisions, regarding overall time limits and sanctions for not meeting requirements. At the end of his term, Schwarzenegger was successful in cutting the time limit to four years and imposing stricter sanctions, effective July 1, 2011. This year, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed to cut the time limit to two years. It remains to be seen whether or not Brown’s plan will pass, or whether it’s enforced even if it does become law. The mere fact that a Democratic governor proposed such reforms shows that his state’s economic reality is finally stark enough that it’s affecting political realities.
Brown’s plan will inevitably be called heartless, draconian Social Darwinism, even though the state technically passed a two-year time limit back in 1997 (lack of enforcement rendered it meaningless). If Brown’s proposal passes, the state will still need another round of reforms (such as the elimination of the Safety Net Program) for it to fall in line with the rest of the nation. Reforming a program as thorny as welfare can be difficult, but California need only follow existing federal standards to alleviate its problems.
— Nash Keune is a Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the Franklin Center.