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California’s Future: Safety Net

Caroline Danielson | January 2020


California’s multifaceted social safety net assists low-income adults and children through cash assistance, tax credits, food assistance, and housing supports. It also has several other short- and long-term goals, such as increasing employ­ment, safeguarding access to food, and improving children’s health. The largest safety net programs help millions each year. For example, in 2018–19, an average of about 970 thousand Californians—83 percent of them children—received monthly support from CalWORKs, the state’s cash assistance program for families with children. And an average of 3.9 million Californians received a monthly food benefit from CalFresh, popularly known as food stamps.

Safety net programs substantially moderate poverty. PPIC research finds that while 18 percent of Californians lived in poverty in 2017, 25 percent would have been poor had it not been for safety net programs. The safety net has an even larger impact on child poverty. Nonetheless, California struggles with high poverty rates and widening inequality. The PPIC Statewide Survey indicates that nearly two-thirds of Californians (63%) believe there is an economic divide between the state’s “haves” and “have nots.”

California has experienced several years of economic expansion, and caseloads for both CalWORKs and CalFresh continue to decline—a sign that family budgets are improving. In 2017, one in twenty Californians (5%) lived in deep poverty—with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty threshold—but more than a third (36%) had economic resources that were less than 150 percent of the poverty threshold. Robust growth in revenues in 2019 allowed state leaders to expand the state Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC) and increase CalWORKs grants, and California is expanding health insurance coverage to some groups of undocumented residents. But families with undocumented members are largely excluded from some large-scale safety net programs—most notably the CalEITC. Moreover, there is ongoing uncertainty about federal funding—which covers the bulk of program costs—and the outcome of the upcoming presiden­tial election could have major implications for the state’s safety net.

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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