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The welfare caseload: Who gets assistance and why

STANFORD -- Proponents of California's Proposition 165 argue for cutting cash benefits to welfare families because California is are among the highest in the nation. They assert that the size of grants attracts both in-state and out-of-state residents to the system.

To test these assertions, Stanford University Law Professor Michael Wald analyzed who was on welfare in California and the factors accounting for the growth in welfare caseloads.

Who is on welfare?

Welfare recipients are extremely diverse, Wald said. The great majority of parents are single mothers. Half are over 30. Contrary to popular images, few of the recipients in this group are teens - 5.9 percent are 18 or 19 and 1.8 percent are under 18. Many of those who begin receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children in their 20s, however, first became mothers when they were teenagers.

Approximately 70 percent of the mothers have one or two children, the same as non-AFDC families.

Wald found there are three groups of AFDC parents:

"One group is composed primarily of older women with high school or college education, who enter the system following a divorce or separation, and stay in the system for the period of time needed to reorganize their lives following the loss of a spouse's earnings," he said. "Research indicates one in seven women nationally must turn to AFDC for support following divorce."

The second group is primarily younger mothers, the majority of whom have not completed high school and have never married. "Many have worked at some point, but due to their limited education they cannot earn enough to support their children," he said.

The third group, which is growing at the fastest rate, is composed of two-parent families with very little education. More than 20 percent of all welfare recipients in California now fall into this growing category. Percentages vary by county, but many in this group are not proficient in English, which also is a factor in limiting their ability to find jobs that pay enough to support a family, Wald said. "This is especially true in times of high unemployment," he said.

More than 30 percent of the recipients in this two- parent family grouping are refugees, predominately from war-torn countries of Southeast Asia. This is particularly true of some counties, including Alameda County in the Bay Area and Orange County in Southern California.

In the central valley, this group includes many seasonal workers who are not covered by unemployment insurance.

How long are they on welfare?

Between 50 and 60 percent of all families entering the welfare system receive support for less than a year. Government statistical reports of welfare data tend to give an impression that people receive aid for a longer period of time than is actually the case, Wald said. That's because a statistical "snapshot in time" captures most of the long-term recipients but only that portion of the short-term recipients who happened to be on the rolls when the snapshot was taken.

Academic research in a number of states also indicates "there is substantial movement of families on and off welfare," Wald said.

Those parents who enter the system following a divorce tend to leave most quickly, usually in less than a year. Never- married mothers and two-parent families tend to stay on longer, generally from one to five years, he said.

"The longer-term recipients remain dependent because they lack job skills or English proficiency, have younger children, or cannot afford child care," Wald said. "They simply cannot earn enough to move their families out of poverty."

Caseload growth factors

California ranks fifth among the 50 states in the size of its cash benefits. However, Wald found that when non-cash housing subsidies and food stamps are counted and the differences in housing costs are taken into account, California's benefits rank 31st. The most recent growth in the caseloads, he said, is not attributable to the size of benefits.

"It is largely attributable to increased unemployment within the state," Wald said.

In a comparison of 13 states in the West and the Southwest by the Congressional Budget Office, states with above- average per capita caseload growth in 1990 tended to have above- average increases in the number of unemployed. Moreover, recent caseload growth has been disproportionately in the category of two- parent unemployed families rather than in the category of single parent families, "which is generally more sensitive to unemployment levels."

A county-by-county analysis in California reveals a similar pattern within the state: Counties with the highest unemployment rates in the first half of 1991 also had the highest caseloads per capita, Wald said.

The increased caseload in the 1980s and 1990s is also partly attributable to "a substantial increase in births to teenagers and to unmarried older women," Wald said. "While these trends raise significant policy issues, they have been nationwide, unrelated to benefit levels." Increased divorce is a factor also, and California has the nation's highest divorce rate.

An additional factor in California has been the addition of refugees previously covered entirely by the federal government.

"While many state officials believe that the federal government should assume full responsibility for helping refugees who cannot find employment, the movement of this group from federal to state caseloads cannot be attributed to benefit levels," Wald said.

For a copy of Wald's report, write the Stanford Center for the Study of Families, Children and Youth, Margaret Jacks Hall, Stanford, CA 94305-2135. The center's telephone number is (415) 723-1706.



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