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Executive Summary

California families want the ability to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, and help their children thrive in their classrooms and communities. For families who struggle to find good-paying jobs, face gender- and race-based discrimination, lack a high school degree, and experience mental illness or trauma, the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program is critical. CalWORKs is California’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and supports about 400,000 children throughout the state, providing their families with modest monthly cash grants while helping parents address barriers to employment and find work. Yet as this Issue Brief outlines, the federal program focuses on quickly pushing parents into paid employment over addressing longer-term barriers to work and resources needed to lead thriving lives. State and federal policymakers can change short-sighted, work-first approaches that undermine efforts to work with California families with low incomes and offer them the support they need.

State Policymakers Should Fully Commit to Helping CalWORKs Families Thrive

To continue to make progress toward making CalWORKs a program that truly serves families in
crisis, policymakers must commit to helping parents address barriers and reject a short-sighted
work-first approach that discourages critical counseling and education.

To achieve this goal, state legislators should:

  • Focus on providing holistic support to CalWORKs parents.
  • Direct the Department of Social Services to remove or revise the WPR penalty for counties.
  • Move away from work requirements.
These work requirements force Californians to “earn” public support and are based on racist and sexist beliefs that people of color take advantage of public assistance and that the unpaid caregiving that women traditionally provide is not real work.

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