As Democrats Push Investments in Welfare Program, Jerry Brown Balks
CalWORKS recipient Deshay Rigsby puts away dishes in her new apartment. (Marisa Lagos/KQED News)
For Democrats in the state Capitol, their quest to expand Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal is all about people like Deshay Rigsby.
Rigsby's 3-year-old son still doesn't quite understand that the one-bedroom Oakley apartment he and his mother moved into in April is actually their home.
Rigsby, now 25, had been homeless since she aged out of the foster care system at 18. Kion had spent his short life sleeping with his mom in homeless shelters, on couches at friends' houses and in cars.
But in April, Rigsby and Kion were able to move into a clean one-bedroom apartment in Contra Costa County, thanks in large part to the state's welfare-to-work program for families, CalWORKS, and an accompanying housing assistance program. Kion is now in preschool, where he is excelling; Rigsby is working in child care full time. They even have new furniture and dishes from Shelter, Inc., the local nonprofit that has been assisting the family.
"It's nice here. It's quiet. I can think," Rigsby said of her new life. "I wake up every day to go to work and I feel like I am in charge of my own life, and I like it."
But she said both she and Kion are still adjusting.
"It's overwhelming because my son doesn’t understand still -- he'll say, 'Mom, I want to go back to my house,' " she said, referring to a friend's place where they had been crashing. "I was like -- that was never your house ... he says, 'Well, is this my house now? Yes? Is this my bedroom? Is this my tablecloth?' Everything, it's just it’s a little overwhelming, and he's still coping with trying to understand is this mine, so I am just wanting him to be comfortable and understand we don’t have to go couch-to-couch anymore."
State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, wants to hear more success stories like Rigsby's. Mitchell has been pushing for years to expand state spending on CalWORKS. This year, she has the backing of the entire Democratic legislative caucus.
Both the Assembly and Senate are pushing Gov. Jerry Brown to add between $200 million and $300 million a year in additional funding for CalWORKS, a program that costs $6 billion a year and serves more than 525,000 families.
Mitchell said the grant amounts offered to families -- the average CalWORKS family receives around $570 a month -- are simply not enough to help struggling Californians get back on their feet. Grant levels were cut during the recession, she noted, creating "the perfect storm."
"Our grant levels are at really historical lows, at the same level we paid 20-plus years ago -- and a quart of milk doesn't cost what it cost 20 years ago," she said. "Housing costs have gone up, grant levels have gone down, jobs are difficult to come by."
While there are some differences between the Assembly and Senate proposals, Democrats in both houses would like to see the state repeal a two-decade-old law that denies additional CalWORKS cash to families who have another child while they're on welfare. That change alone would cost the state $158 million a year; it's one Mitchell has pushed for three years running.
Known as the "maximum family grant" rule, the limit was pushed by Republicans in the early 1990s, when there was a public perception that families were abusing the welfare system.
"It was really fundamentally, I believe, based on the premise that poor women on CalWORKS simply had babies to increase their grant," said Mitchell. "I don't believe in that premise, I don't know anybody who would have a baby for the mere fact of getting an additional $120 a month."
Senate Democrats also want to delay a 2012 law set to go into effect in the coming months that would cut families' CalWORKS grants after two years unless a parent is working or engaged in work-related activity at least 20 hours a week.
H.D. Palmer, Brown's budget spokesman, said the two-year limit was imposed to comply with federal rules and that the state could face steep fines if it reverses the law.
But Michael Herald, a lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said many families have barriers that prevent them from working that much -- and in some cases, can't get consistent enough hours at their low-paying jobs to comply.
And Frank Mecca, director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, said for some people, 24 months simply isn't long enough.
"Sometimes a family might experience a job loss or domestic violence, and they address whatever issues come up and move from welfare to work, and then a recession comes up and they are out of work again," he said. "People's lives are not linear and people's lives are complicated."
He said the timing wouldn't be as big of a deal if there were better resources to help CalWORKS parents thrive. The Assembly, for example, has proposed a cost-of-living increase that would bring grant levels up by about 2.5 percent next year -- at an annual cost to the state of $91 million. The Assembly is also proposing to increase the amount of funding available to help house CalWORKS families -- the program that helped Deshay Risgby get her apartment -- from $20 million to $50 million next fiscal year .
"What we really need to do," said Mecca, "is make sure people have adequate resources, adequate supportive services, like meaningful job training and child care, and give them that assistance as quickly as possible so they can move from welfare to work."
The two legislative houses are meeting this week in a conference committee to iron out their budget differences; negotiations with Brown are likely to begin in earnest by Monday. But Palmer, the governor's spokesman, said that in general the administration is opposed to the increased spending.
He said the Legislature is depending on revenue projections that are about $3 billion higher than the governor's. Even if revenues are significantly higher, Palmer said, it would be irresponsible to commit any extra money to ongoing spending programs.
"They are basing that higher revenue significantly on higher assumptions around capital gains, which are, by definition, volatile and can turn on a dime," he said. "The augmentations the Legislature has made at this point ... are intended to be ongoing in nature, and if we get to a point where the economy takes a turn for the worse, and revenues decline significantly, then these programs are going to have to turn right back around and face reductions. So we don't believe it's prudent to build ongoing spending on revenues we believe from that forecast are going to be one time in nature."
Palmer noted that the governor has proposed a poverty-fighting program that pretty much everyone in Sacramento seems to support: An earned income tax credit for the working poor.
And for all the disagreements, Mecca struck a positive note, saying policymakers in California seem to agree -- after years of attacking these programs -- that poverty is damaging to kids and that state leaders have a responsibility to tackle the issue.
"We have a big hill to climb and a long way to go, but before the Legislature and the governor right now is a really great foundation," Mecca said, citing the proposals to repeal the maximum family grant, enact the earned income tax credit and expand housing support for families.
"These are all really incredibly important foundational measures that can help us take the first step toward eliminating poverty, because that should be our goal -- to eliminate poverty for children and their parents," he said.