March 17, 2014–In a lawsuit filed several days ago in Alameda County Superior Court, an impoverished mother is asking the Court to order the state to require that county welfare agencies give California’s neediest families the help they need to lift themselves to self-sufficiency – assistance the law mandates but which the agencies too often do not provide, or provide too late.
In a scenario that is playing out throughout California, one of the petitioners, Loraine Jones, is about to lose critical CalWORKs benefits despite the law’s requirement that cash payments be accompanied by education, job training and similar services. Had those services been given to Jones years ago, she and her 5-year-old child might now have a chance to escape crushing poverty. But for over three years, the Alameda County welfare department never offered welfare-to-work services. Rather, the County let the 4-year clock run out on her CalWORKs benefits and will now cut her off with no employment skills, and with almost no money to house or feed herself and her child.
“This isn’t the way the welfare system is supposed to work,” said Public Interest Law Project attorney Patti Prunhuber, who represents Jones. “The CalWORKS program sets up mutual responsibilities between the agency and the recipient. Recipients are responsible for participating in welfare-to-work and are penalized if they don’t. The County is responsible for providing needy families with a small cash grant, along with the welfare-to-work services that will allow them to get a job and become self-sufficient. Loraine Jones asked for this help – twice – but the County ignored her. Making sure that counties provide this welfare-to-work assistance is the state’s duty, and by reneging on its responsibilities the state is letting everyone down.”
The problem is not confined to Ms. Jones or to Alameda County. The lawsuit identifies a state-wide, systemic failure by the California Department of Social Services (“CDSS”) to ensure that counties follow the law and make the necessary efforts to provide all eligible CalWORKs recipients the skills they need to achieve economic self-sufficiency. “CDSS is not taking the minimal steps necessary to see that California’s 58 counties follow through on their obligation to timely provide welfare-to-work services. Rather, they just count the months until the time is up, and then cut CalWORKs recipients loose,” said Chris Douglas, of the East Bay Community Law Center, which is also representing Jones and the other petitioners.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the CDSS to require counties to make sure that CalWORKs recipients receive all welfare welfare-to-work services in a timely manner. Additionally, the suit demands that when they fail to do so, that people such as Jones not be terminated from CalWORKs cash aid until they get the welfare-to-work services the Legislature felt they needed to prepare themselves to enter the workforce.
According to Douglas, “Unless people such as Jones receive welfare-to-work training, the problems of poverty will only get worse statewide. In a state where one in four children lives in poverty, that is intolerable.”
About The Public Interest Law Project and the East Bay Community Law Center
The Public Interest Law Project is a public interest law firm focusing on impact litigation and policy advocacy on behalf of low-income Californians. The East Bay Community Law Center is the largest provider of free legal services in the East Bay, and has been advocating for families on welfare since its founding in 1988.