Welfare Rolls Show Record Decline Throughout State
Nudged into jobs by a vibrant economy and new work programs, California’s poor have been leaving public assistance in record numbers, plunging welfare rolls into the longest sustained decline in the state’s history.
In a 10-month period, the number of families on welfare has dropped by more than 100,000, or 12%, as counties report increasing success at moving recipients into the work force. Officials say the state savings amount to $54 million a month.
Every county, including those with double-digit unemployment, showed steady decreases in the welfare rolls, while ones with booming economies, such as Santa Clara and San Mateo, reported drops of nearly 25%.
“This continues and remains the only extended caseload reduction we have ever had,” said Bruce Smith, principal economist for the California Department of Finance. “The last time we had a reduction in cases was in 1979, and it lasted only a short time.”
Smith saw two dominant reasons for the prolonged plunge: a resurgent economy and a new work-first culture in welfare departments that has pushed recipients into the job market.
A third of the decline, he said, was attributed to Los Angeles County, which had a 10.9% drop and helped drive down the statewide numbers. More than a quarter of a million families are on the county’s rolls.
“Los Angeles County has a tonnage problem. It’s got more welfare recipients than most states,” he said. “In the last three years, the caseload [there] is down by 53,000. That’s a big number.”
Los Angeles County research director Paul Fast said recipients have been moving into jobs at a rate of about 4,000 a month.
“We’ve been working very hard to get people to work and the economy is being very, very helpful,” he said. “The unemployment rate in Los Angeles is now back to the pre-recession level.” The rate in June was 6.3%.
The welfare slide in Orange County was even greater--18%, or 6,306 cases in 10 months. Smith said a high number of entry-level positions--such as answering services for 800 numbers--helps account for the steep drop.
California welfare rolls hit their peak in 1995, with nearly 1 million families on public assistance. In 1996, when the federal government mandated welfare reforms, the rolls slowly began to shrink. Then they took a sudden nose dive in the summer of 1997 as the Legislature adopted a state reform plan to be implemented by the counties.
Some economists initially theorized that the precipitous drop might only be a temporary blip caused by the publicity surrounding the reforms. But even after public discussion died down, the decline continued. The rolls dropped 12.2% from July 1997 through April 1998, the last month statewide figures are available from the Department of Social Services.
Even so, the pace of California’s welfare decline is slower than the rest of the nation, which Smith said is not surprising.
With a welfare caseload that is bigger than the population of some states, the sheer numbers of people who had to be moved into jobs made welfare reform more daunting for California, he said. And the state did not formally begin to implement its reform plan until January, which was at least a year later than most other states.
“What is encouraging, though,” he said, “is that very large numbers of people are continuing to leave welfare even in counties that are experiencing high ongoing unemployment.”
But many experts warn that plummeting rolls should not be the only measure of success for welfare reform. They say it is too soon to know what is really happening to families because a system for tracking them after welfare is still in the planning stages.
“Until we know what’s happening to these people and whether or not their ability to leave the rolls means they’ve become more self-sufficient and their children are better off, it’s hard to use caseload decline as the sole factor of success,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Assn. of California.
Barbara Baldwin, director of the Parent Connection, a private nonprofit program in the San Fernando Valley that helps poor adults improve their parenting skills, said she has seen increased levels of stress in families where single mothers are trying to develop job skills that will help them off welfare.
Baldwin recalled one case that she described as fairly typical: The father had abandoned the family, leaving the mother to raise four children under 8. Under the demands of welfare reform, the mother had to juggle the need to find child care and learn a trade with the demands of running the household on a meager allowance.
“My worry is that the ones who end up paying the emotional price are the kids. . . . It’s all a big stress on them because their mother is stretched so far,” Baldwin said.
Gwendolyn Mink, professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz and author of the book “Welfare’s End,” echoed a widespread concern that welfare recipients who land in low-paying and relatively short-term jobs will be returning to the rolls in the months and years ahead.
“If the point of welfare reform was to diminish the rolls, then at least for today we can say welfare reform has worked,” she said. “But if the point of welfare reform was to improve the prospects of poor people, then I don’t see a reason to be particularly sanguine.”
County welfare officials, however, say it is clear that more recipients are moving into jobs than in the past, and their analysis is backed by a recent study by the General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress. The GAO reported that California more than doubled the job placement rate for welfare recipients from 1996 to 1997.
Each county has handled welfare reform in a slightly different way, although each is required to impose standard time limits on welfare benefits and sanctions on recipients who fail to meet work requirements, and to move increasing numbers of recipients into jobs.
With its heavy emphasis on fraud detection, San Diego County has experienced steep declines in its rolls. But so has Santa Clara County, which has developed a long menu of services to help its recipients move off welfare.
Officials in both counties say they do have one important factor in common: They anticipated welfare reforms and began taking steps to comply long before either the state or federal governments made reforms mandatory.
Alette Lundeberg, director of welfare-to-work programs in Santa Clara County, said even recipients with limited English-language skills are finding work.
But she said there is some evidence that the rapid welfare decline might not continue much longer, as the easiest to employ move off the rolls.
“In my opinion we’re about to reach the hard-to-serve,” she said. “These are people who have a rainbow of barriers: alcohol, drug and mental problems.”
If the rolls shrink further, Mecca said, it won’t be long before counties throughout the state will be left with recipients who have a long-term dependency on welfare and no job skills or experience.
“That will be the real challenge of welfare reform,” he said.
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Since the 1994-95 fiscal year, the welfare caseload in California has fallen by almost 20%. The decline accelerated after the adoption of welfare reforms last year.
Statewide average monthly caseloads
Fiscal Year 1994-95: 921,011
Fiscal Year 1995-96: 902,813
Fiscal Year 1996-97: 842,616
Fiscal Year 1997-98: 739,746
Caseload reductions from July 1997 through April 1998 for selected counties:
County Drop in cases % reduction Alameda 3,438 11% Los Angeles 32,124 11% Orange 6,306 18% Riverside 4,620 13% Santa Barbara 877 15% San Bernardino 7,370 13% Santa Clara 5,460 22% San Diego 9,294 16% San Francisco 1,642 15% Ventura 1,347 14%
Source: California Department of Social Services