The pandemic recession has posed challenges to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which aims to help low-income families achieve economic well-being through a pathway of welfare-to-work (WTW). Notably, low-income single-parent families disproportionately experienced economic hardship, unstable employment, and challenges of balancing work and caregiving (Hertz et al., 2020). Despite concerns about the weak TANF responses to macroeconomic conditions (Chang & Romich, 2021; Shrivastava & Thompson, 2022), limited studies examined the TANF responses to the pandemic with a focus on the holistic WTW provisions. This study conducts a case study on the largest TANF program–California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs), which is committed to providing both cash benefits and WTW services through a highly devolved service delivery system. We address two questions: (1) How did CalWORKs caseload, application, service utilization, and case closure performance change before and after the pandemic? (2) To what extent were these performance changes associated with the macroeconomic condition, racial composition, poverty politics, and the pandemic condition? (3) How did the program experiences of single-parent families differ from those of two-parent families?
We collected data from multiple administrative datasets (Cal-OAR, CA237, WTW25, and CW115) from the California Department of Social Services to generate 16 monthly performance measures from January 2012 to June 2021. First, we analyzed the trends of performance measures (e.g., application approval and denial rate, WTW sanction and exemption rates, and WTW service utilization) for overall CalWORKs cases and by family type (single vs. two-parent). Second, we used multivariate regression models and exploited county-level variation to test the associations between program performance measures and unemployment rate, race composition, political ideology, and the pandemic phase. Finally, we use the interaction models to analyze the differential program experiences between single-parent and two-parent families.
We found higher application denial rates and lower approval rates during the pandemic than the pre-pandemic levels, suggesting limited program accessibility for new clients. We observed significant decreases in WTW sanctions and non-compliance, aligning with the sanction curing and work activity requirements lifted policies implemented during the pandemic. Most of the service utilization (e.g., employment, training, and education services) substantially decreased during the pandemic, except for childcare and human service utilization (e.g., mental health and domestic violence services). Notably, single-parent families had significantly higher utilization of human services and child care than two-parent families. Preliminary multivariate regression results show single parents’ education service utilization increased when the unemployment rate increased before the pandemic. However, this association significantly attenuated to zero during the pandemic, suggesting that single parents did not benefit from using education services to build human capital during the pandemic recession.
Conclusions and Implications
Findings highlight the limited TANF access for the new clients and insufficient WTW services for the existing clients, despite flexible, lenient rules implemented during the pandemic. We discuss implications for permanent relaxations of the time limit and welfare sanction rules to improve access, equity, and justice for economically disadvantaged families in the post-pandemic era.