California’s Budget SubCommittee on Health and Human Services discusses reimagining CalWORKs program


Hannah Saunders


California’s Budget SubCommittee on Health and Human Services held its first meeting of the year on Wednesday, where panel discussions were held about essential state programs, including CalWORKs. A focus of the CalWORKs panel was reimagining the program to alleviate poverty for families.

CalWORKs is California’s primary cash support and basic needs program for families with children who are living in poverty. The program serves approximately 360,000 families, including 750,000 children. The majority of adults within this program are single women of color. 


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“Child poverty has been on a steady decline nationally since 2009,” Department of Social Services Director Kim Johnson said.

Johnson led the panel discussion, and touched upon the long-term consequences of toxic stress that children in poverty experience. Due to safety net programs, 2021 marked the lowest ever child poverty rate. Johnson provided data from the CalWORKs program and said 90% of its caseloads are women; 59.9% are Hispanic or Latina; 69.4% speak English as a primary language; and 27.2% speak Spanish as a primary language.

Johnson emphasized the need to ensure basic family needs are met while creating long-term positive outcomes. The program is undergoing several improvements, according to Johnson, including creating access to laptops, and continuing education and training to improve access to educational opportunities, among others.

“We are very much working to be engaged in how we are connecting families participating in CalWORKs with that array,” Johnson said.

Linda Nguy, senior policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, also spoke at the panel discussion, stating that CalWORKs needs to become a trauma-informed program, and should eliminate all non-federal CalWORKs mandates.

“The CalWORKs program is a deeply flawed program but can fulfill its potential,” Nguy said, while noting that Illinois has eliminated sanctions when parents fail to submit paperwork. She recommended eliminating the county work penalty.

Individuals may be ineligible for CalWORKs for several reasons, including exceeding the lifetime limit on aid for adults, receiving Supplemental Security Income/State Supplemental Payment benefits or sanctions. The CalWORKs Welfare-to-Work (WTW) sanction takes place when nonexempt adult recipients are removed from the assistance unit for failing or refusing, without reasonable cause, to comply with the WTW participation requirements. 

The adult portion of the grant is approximately $120 per month for a family of three, and the grant is reduced when sanctions occur. The California Budget & Policy Center recently published a report titled “Harmful Obstacles: CalWORKs Work Participation Rate (WPR) Penalty,” which focuses on the program’s work penalties. 

Glennda Brownell is a current CalWORKs parent, a full-time college student, a work studies student, and the mother of a 16-year-old child. 

“This time has not come without a variety of difficult situations and circumstances,” Brownell said. “We often have to engage in burdensome self-advocacy.”

Brownell shared experiences she has had regarding inconsistencies around CalWORKs’ implementation of rules, and said the expectations of the program are unclear, and that information and resources about program benefits are lacking. 

“We also experience delays and disruptions in benefits due to delays in paperwork,” Brownell said. 

The annual renewal process feels labor intensive and causes unnecessary mental stress about the possibility of being discontinued, Brownell said. She also stated that the interview portion of the renewal process feels more like an interrogation session rather than a routine procedure.

“We often experience disrespectful and micro-aggressive treatment that negatively impacts self-esteem,” Brownell said. 

During the last renewal process, Brownell acted as her husband’s translator because no interpreter was offered. She said an associate couldn’t properly pronounce her husband’s name, then rudely asked if he knew what she was saying. Her husband shut down and didn’t want to participate in the renewal process after that experience, Brownell said.

“The circumstances I’ve described are unacceptable,” she said. 

A coalition of advocates, including GRACE/End Child Poverty California, Western Center on Law and Poverty, California Coalition of Welfare Rights Organizations, Parent Voices, and John Burton Advocates for Youth forwarded a package of proposals in reaction to the alleged negative effects of the CalWORKs program, and outlined needs of disadvantaged families who have children living in poverty.

The first proposal would remove pejorative and racist language from the statutory scheme and replace it with family-centered, empowering, and anti-racist language. Revising the sanction policy to reflect anti-racist and family-centered values and ensuring that the state’s anti-poverty programs are focused on well-being is another proposal. To achieve this, the proposal suggests ensuring families that are struggling with truancy and immunization requirements don’t face financial penalties and are referred to or assisted by a family-stabilization program. It also suggests lowering the WTW sanction to no more than 5% of an adult’s portion of the grant. 

Another proposal includes revising the WTW scheme to enable counties to rapidly provide services and support to families who need them, and move away from a penalty-focused program to one that respects the choices of families and empowers them. 

Recommendations also include prioritizing families’ anti-poverty needs at the time of application by offering supportive services such as housing, mental health services, substance use services, and work support services. 

Additional proposals include transitioning from the required WTW plan to a planning process that allows counties to partner with families to develop plans to meet their needs and achieve their goals, reducing work-activity documentation to a minimum to eliminate weekly hour requirements, and changing the program’s definition of work that focuses on family well-being rather than work participation rate.