Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

(CALMATTERS) – President Biden signed on Saturday a last-ditch bill to raise the national debt limit that includes Republican-forced provisions for stricter work requirements on welfare recipients.

But California is headed in the opposite direction. And that could lead to the state losing a big chunk of the federal grants that fund its CalWORKS program.

As Jeanne Kuang from CalMatters’ California Divide team explains, the state Assembly passed a bill  last week that would loosen state welfare-to-work eligibility requirements and cut back on sanctions, or penalties, against individuals who violate work rules.

The proposal has its drawbacks: California could lose $185 million out of the $3.7 billion a year it gets from the federal government if it doesn’t meet its work metric. Supporters of work requirements also argue that incentivizing people to work will drive down poverty and dependence on public benefits. 

But data shows that while employment did slightly increase when the federal government enacted stricter work requirements for welfare recipients in the 1990s, poverty did not drop.

Meanwhile, California has historically taken a different approach. Unlike some other states, it continued to give cash aid to children in the 1990s, even after their parents were cut off from benefits for violating program work rules. And in 2012, California included a list of eligible activities that went beyond the federal definitions of work.

That helps low-income parents such as Summer Pratt, who receives CalWORKS benefits while attending college because it counts toward the state’s work rules.

  • Pratt, a mother currently enrolled at Sierra College: “The money itself has been a tremendous help in allowing me time with my kids and to do schoolwork, and allowing me not to have to go into the workforce yet.”

The push to reform parts of CalWORKS still needs the approval of the state Senate and Gov. Gavin Newsom. As for the new federal welfare rules outlined in the debt ceiling package, of California’s three Democratic Senate candidates, only Rep. Adam Schiff voted to pass the debt  deal while Reps. Barbara Lee and Katie Porter did not. Advocates of California’s measure say the federal government has threatened the state with welfare fines before but never enforced them.