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California’s Future: Social Safety Net

Caroline Danielson | January 2018


California’s social safety net is designed to help people in economic need. It has several other short- and long-term goals, such as increasing employment, safeguarding adequate access to food, and improving children’s well-being. Safety net assistance takes a number of forms, including cash grants, nutritional support, housing assistance, and tax credits. The largest programs help millions of Californians each year. For example, in 2016–17, an average of 1.09 million state residents received monthly support from CalWORKs, California’s cash assistance program for families with children. And an average of 4.15 million Californians received a monthly food benefit from CalFresh, popularly known as food stamps or EBT. Safety net programs substantially moderate poverty, particularly among children. PPIC research finds that while 21.6 percent of California children lived in poverty in 2015, 36 percent would have been poor had it not been for safety net programs.

In 2016, California made a commitment to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. The first incre­mental increase—to $10 or $10.50, depending on employer size—occurred in January 2017. California also expanded eligibility for the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which has been available since 2015 to tax filers with very low earnings. As of 2017, earnings from self-employment count toward EITC eligibility and those who earn up to the annual equivalent of the state’s full-time minimum wage can get at least a small credit.

Since most families have at least some income from employment, these changes promise to ease economic need—as long as California’s economy continues to expand. After several years of statewide economic expansion, both the CalWORKs and the CalFresh caseloads have fallen substantially—a sign that family budgets are improving. But California must deal with the recurring challenge of reinforcing the safety net during economic downturns, when economic need increases and the state budget shrinks. The state also faces continuing uncertainty about the federal role in safety net programs.

This publication is part of a briefing kit that highlights our state’s most pressing long-term policy challenges in 11 key areas:

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the PPIC Corporate Circle and the PPIC Donor Circle.

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