New Report Documenting CalWORKs Impact on Families in Poverty Released Today

For Immediate Release:
July 14, 2003

Contact: Jonathan Adams, ARC, Tel: (646) 502-8843

How California's CalWORKs Keeps Families Poor
Call to Investigate CalWORKs Illegal Activities

Oakland, CA—Findings of a new investigative report point to systemic violations of the law by the state’s CalWORKS program. California Department of Social Services Director Rita Saenz has yet to respond to the study (see letter below), which documents a pattern of language discrimination, illegal use of sanctions, and gross miscalculations of exemptions to the 60-month time limit. In addition, the report finds that the Department may be in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act and calls on the Department to suspend time limits and sanctions until a full investigation is completed.

The Applied Research Center’s Falling through the Cracks: How California’s CalWORKs Keeps Families Poor documents the experiences of over thirty families in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Alameda counties. Key findings include routine, illegal, and unjust use of sanctions; gross miscalculations of legitimate exemptions; and the denial of job training and educational opportunities.

"The CalWORKs program is clearly broken, and the responsibility lies squarely on CDSS Director Saenz to fix it," remarks ARC Senior Research Associate Menachem Krajcer. "Unless she begins an immediate investigation into these violations, thousands of families will continue to be left without any recourse and unable to pay their rent, buy groceries, or meet other basic needs. Most disturbing was our finding that nearly every family interviewed was sanctioned at least once, often times related to issues such as not being able to speak English, refusing to drop out of college, and paperwork lost by the welfare office."

Review the full document, Falling through the Cracks: How California’s CalWORKs Keeps Families Poor, here .

The Applied Research Center is a policy institute advancing racial justice through research, advocacy and journalism.


Letter to Director of the California Department of Social Services

Applied Research Center
3781 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94611

June 27, 2003

Rita SaenzDirector
California Department of Social Services
744 P Street
Sacramento CA 95814

Dear Director Saenz:

We are writing to request that the California Department of Social Services initiate an immediate investigation of the CalWORKs program. Recent research efforts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Alameda counties has found frequent violations of families’ due process rights, evidence of language discrimination, illegal use of sanctions and denial of eligible benefits, and gross miscalculations of exemptions provided under state law.

The Applied Research Center (ARC) is a national, independent research institute focusing on issues of race and public policy. ARC has been working with researchers and advocates across the nation to address issues of discrimination and access to public assistance programs. We recently completed a research project which involved in-depth interviews with over 30 families impacted by CalWORKS and focus meetings with state-level advocates assisting families in need (see attached report).

Key findings of the report include:

Routine, Illegal, and Unjust Use of Sanctions. Nearly every family interviewed was sanctioned at least once while receiving CalWORKs assistance. Families were sanctioned for a wide variety of reasons, including not being able to speak English and refusing to drop out of college. In addition, CalWORKs participants reported the loss of their documents by welfare offices and personnel, in part because offices are short-staffed, as a primary reason for being sanctioned. Program participants also reported difficulties in reaching their caseworkers, which resulted in protracted sanctions of weeks or often times months. 

Miscalculation of Legitimate Exemptions. State and federal laws mandate that CalWORKs protect and exempt the disabled, survivors of domestic violence, and others not able to work. The state is also required to provide time back (to the 60-month time limit) for months in which child support was collected. Yet, caseworkers routinely ignore exemptions and fail to implement time-back provisions. 

Denial of Job Training and Educational Opportunities. Families are routinely steered away from vocational and educational opportunities and tracked into ineffective, and often degrading, short-term job search activities and low-wage jobs. A number of families lost their jobs when the county failed to follow through on its commitment to provide childcare assistance as legally mandated. In addition, the research found that transportation assistance was often illegally denied.

These violations appear to be systemic and require an in-depth inquiry by your Department. For example, a study by your Research Division found that 84 percent of California’s 19 largest counties cited illness or disability of an individual or family member as the most frequent reason for families not participating in welfare-to-work activities. Despite the fact that CalWORKs is required to provide childcare and transportation assistance when needed, 79 percent of counties cited lack of transportation and 42 percent the interruption of childcare arrangements as the second and third most frequent reasons for not participating in work-related activities.

We strongly recommend that the Department consider suspending all time limits and sanctions pending a statewide investigation. In particular, we ask that you conduct an independent review of all cases currently closed or scheduled for closure under the 60-month time limit to ensure that families have been treated legally and fairly. County CalWORKs programs simply have failed to properly conduct exit interviews with families to review and recalculate exemptions, benefit levels, and retroactive support for services illegally denied.

We will be contacting your office to schedule a meeting to further discuss these findings.

Menachem Krajcer
Senior Research Associate

CC: County Social Service Directors, County Civil Rights Coordinators, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, California Congressional Delegation, California Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committee and Health and Human Services Committee, legal aid and welfare advocates, and members of the media.