California Welfare

In a report to Congress published in June 2009, the Office of Financial Assistance (OFA) tallied the September 2008 welfare caseload in each state. The program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, is known by its acronym TANF and was created in 1996 to reform the previous welfare program and emphasize getting people back to work.

The dramatic increase in the caseload since 2006 is a testimony to the economic downturn. In September 2006, only California, Tennessee and Rhode Island had a greater than 1% of their population on this welfare to work program. California ranked first with 1.32% of the population on welfare.

Fast forward two years to September 2008 and the data shows that 24 states had greater than 1% of their population on this program.

In 2006, California had almost 1/2 million cases, almost twice as many welfare cases per 1000 people as New York and New Mexico, two other states with large immigrant populations. Texas and Florida, populous states with large immigrant populations, had far, far less cases per 1000 people than California.

In the two years from 2006 to 2008, New York’s caseload per 1000 population increased 60%. New Mexico’s caseload percentage doubled. As bad as the auto industry has been, Michigan had 1.72% of its population on the TANF program, the same as New Mexico.

New York has been hit hard by the financial crisis, Michigan by the auto crisis. California’s economy has a diverse base including agriculture, technology, tourism and the movie industry. In any downturn, diversity is a strength. So why does California continue to claim the top spot among states in welfare caseloads per 1000 population? At 3.25% of the population, this is a 250% increase in welfare caseloads in two years.

As high as California’s caseload is, it has declined 45% since the TANF program went into effect in 1996. California Budget Bites reports “The number of families receiving CalWORKs [California’s welfare to work program] dropped by more than 400,000 between March 1995 and March 2009. Yes, the CalWORKs caseload has gone up since July of 2007 – not surprising, given the economic downturn – but the overall trend in California slopes downward.”

Judging by the above data, we can conclude that as bad as California’s welfare program is, it is not as bad as it used to be. One wonders if this welfare expense might be contributing to California’s budget woes.

Cal Budget Bites notes that “Total spending on welfare fell by nearly one-third (32 percent) between 1996-97 and 2008-09, after adjusting for inflation.” Another factoid: “Welfare spending in California made up about 7 percent of the state budget in 1996-97. Today, it makes up about 3 percent.”

Why do California’s caseloads continue to be two and three times what many other states are? As noted above, a large immigrant population is not the reason. A lack of economic diversity is not the reason. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have high housing costs but they don’t have the high caseloads. Could it possibly be a badly structured and poorly managed program? Hmmm, something to think about there.

In 2006, California had 12% of the U.S. population and 25% of the welfare caseloads. In Sept 2008, California still had 12% of total population but 31.5% of caseloads in the U.S.

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