As unemployed Californians struggle to find work, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed strict rules for parents on welfare: Get a job in two years or lose nearly half of cash aid along with training and child care.
"This is not nice stuff, but that's what it takes to balance the budget," Brown said earlier this month when he released his plan, which would halve the current welfare-to-work time limit.
The governor's welfare cuts would lop nearly $1 billion off the state's $9.2 billion general fund deficit. He would prioritize employment as California faces federal penalties for having too many parents who do not work 30 hours a week.
Those who study poverty say Brown's proposal is harsh because even well-qualified workers can't find jobs in this economy. They contend that parents who max out on welfare benefits are the least equipped to join the workforce.
"These are the families with the least work history, the least education, and states are saying, 'We don't want to deal with you, we're going to cut you off,' " said Liz Schott, a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program has become an annual budget target because it has fewer state and federal protections than other public programs and less voter support.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed eliminating CalWORKs until he and Democrats settled on a 2009 deal that cut the time limit from five years to four and imposed stricter sanctions.
Last year, Brown and lawmakers repealed some of the Schwarzenegger measures. But they kept the four-year time limit for adults and cut grants by 8 percent, dropping the monthly maximum from $694 to $638 for a family of three. It is lower than the $663 that California offered the same family in 1988.
"To think that in 2012, I as a single working mom would be expected to live off of income at a rate we paid in the 1980s is almost comical," said Assemblywoman Holly J. Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who heads the budget subcommittee that oversees health and welfare programs. "Ultimately, low-income working families and children are going to suffer."
Legislative Democrats say they are in no rush to pass another round of welfare cuts. Some lawmakers and advocates question how serious the governor is, seeing his plan as an austerity offering to voters as he asks for higher taxes.
But it is one of the few Brown proposals that Republicans applaud.
"We've created a culture of dependency that destroys human nature," said Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee. "When that happens, people lose the desire to continue finding work because they've given up. I believe human nature thrives when it has something productive to do."
Tia Gilmore, 25, said she lost her position in October working as a cook at a Virginia hotel, where she moved after previously living in Sacramento. She and her 4-year-old son returned home to live with her mom in October.
Gilmore receives $490 a month in CalWORKs aid and $266 in CalFresh food benefits, as well as child care for her son. She learned how to write a résumé and answer interview questions Friday during a county job training session in south Sacramento.
She feared Brown's plan would not provide enough time to attend school. "A lot of people here are still struggling and on the verge of being homeless," she said, "because it's not enough money and they can't find jobs."