The first time April Acosta applied for cash assistance 18 years ago, the Baldwin Park mother of a 2-year-old thought it would help pull her out of a cycle of dead-end desk jobs.
She signed up for CalWorks, the state's cash aid program for low-income adults with children, hoping she could enroll in community college, get a degree and leave the medical referral office where she had developed carpal tunnel syndrome.
Instead of pointing her toward school, a Los Angeles County case worker handed her a list of places to get a new job and said that if she didn't land one, her CalWorks benefits would be cut.
She continued taking jobs, off and on, that would have met the program's requirements, but they didn't help her get ahead. They were a patchwork of "lower-end," often temporary office jobs, answering phones and filing papers. Now at 51 she says she has rarely made much above minimum wage.
"It felt like being forced," she said about that first encounter with CalWorks. "It was like trying to get me to work more than anything else. It wasn't a career."
For a quarter of a century, the "work first" welfare model that Acosta and many other people experience has defined California's cash assistance program. Work requirements were the pillar of the 1996 federal welfare reforms that President Bill Clinton signed into law and that states have been pushed to enforce ever since.
But advocates for the poor and many policy experts have long criticized the federal rules as rigid, punitive and born out of racist tropes about Black single mothers abusing welfare. They say it sometimes hurts those it's supposed to help.
Some state officials and advocates are trying to change that, but there are challenges.
"The current program is really just focused on: can you get people into jobs as much as possible. Everything else is secondary," said Esi Hutchful, policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center, which advocates for low-income Californians.
Nationwide, the number of families receiving cash aid has plunged from a peak of 5 million in 1994 to roughly a fifth of that today. Incentivized by the 1996 federal law, many states enacted policies that slashed enrollment.
California has been more generous than the rest of the country. Today people in the Golden State make up nearly a third of all cash aid recipients nationwide. The federal government gives California $3.7 billion a year for what is called the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which the state operates as CalWorks.
Last year more than 606,000 Californians received cash aid, about 461,000 of them children. For single-parent households, the typical recipient family receives aid for 23 months, state data show.
The state has tried to loosen work restrictions over the years, as similar efforts at the federal level have stalled.
California created its own set of more flexible rules, letting low-income parents sidestep some federal work requirements in favor of a wider range of educational opportunities or services to address such obstacles as mental health issues, domestic violence or other circumstances that can keep people from being able to hold down stable jobs.
The state plans to measure success by how families' lives improve, not just how many work hours recipients log. It could look at recipients' educational attainment or improvements in family and child wellbeing, officials said.
"We recognize together the flaws embedded in just having this (work) metric," said Kim Johnson, director of the state's Department of Social Services earlier this month. "We would recognize that work and employment are one component of many in terms of the success of CalWorks."
But federal rules could hinder efforts to transform the program. Focusing on other priorities means focusing less on work requirements, which states still are liable to enforce.
California's 58 counties administer CalWorks. If they fail to usher in enough recipients to jobs, the federal government can levy financial penalties against the state, which would share half that cost with the counties.
"The counties' share of the penalty has been an incredibly inhibiting element, impeding the work into which we have already invested so much time, effort and goodwill," said Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, a Fresno Democrat, during a legislative hearing this month. He said he is interested in writing language into the state budget that would shield county departments from such financial penalties.
For states and counties, the Clinton-era version of welfare in place today revolves around a single metric known as the work participation rate.
It calls for at least 50% of recipient families to have an adult working at least 30 hours a week at a job or attending a vocational training program, with some exceptions. Families risk having their benefits cut if they don't meet the requirement.
Proponents of the work requirements – Republicans and Democrats – said in the 1990s that those receiving government aid should be expected to work. They said it would promote financial independence and reduce the number of families cycling on and off aid.
At first it seemed to be working. In the first five years after reforms kicked in, welfare caseloads and child poverty fell. Employment among single mothers – the heads of household in most recipient families – rose.
But in recent decades, according to the Congressional Research Service, caseloads have continued to fall while child poverty has climbed, and single mothers' employment has dropped.
Stricter program requirements, according to one 2019 study, did not increase participants' earnings. Another 2019 study found those subject to the requirements were the most likely to cycle in and out of the welfare system.
Some anti-poverty advocates say the work rules don't account for barriers to employment that a family in crisis may be facing, such as mental illness or domestic violence — which a fifth of CalWorks recipients have faced, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.
Also four in 10 of recipient heads of households don't have a high school diploma.
The requirements were implemented "under the idea that people are poor because they want to be poor or they aren't working hard enough," Hutchful said.
"A lot of people are experiencing mental health crises or domestic violence or substance use and are not really in a position to be able to just come to a program for assistance and be told, ‘In the next 30 days you need to go get a job, never mind what your actual life situation is like.'"
States usually only meet the federal rates through "gimmicks," said Michael Herald, director of policy advocacy for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. Some were able to lower their targets by reducing their welfare rolls. California boosted its rate by giving many working food assistance recipients an additional $10 a month out of its welfare funds.
Acosta said the pressure on her to get training or a job were not helpful.
"Every time I had to deal with the CalWorks department, it was always fear," she said. "They're gonna tell me I have to do this, I'm gonna get sanctioned for this, I'm gonna get cut. It was really nerve-wracking, and it's not somewhere I want to be, ever."
In 2012 California sought to make changes.
A state law passed that year allowing CalWorks recipients to spend up to 24 of their months on cash aid on a more flexible set of tasks outside the federal work requirements, including a wider range of educational options and some employment "barrier reduction" activities such as mental health care.
Recipients raising very young children also had their weekly required work activity hours lowered.
In May, the more flexible state activities will be allowed for a recipient's entire time on cash aid. Also this year, the state's lifetime limit on an adult receiving cash aid is scheduled to increase to 60 months, from 48.
Other changes are in the pipeline.
Newsom's administration wants to pay previous CalWorks recipients millions of dollars it has intercepted in child support payments as a form of "recoupment" for the cash aid.
Lawmakers also are considering looser restrictions on activities allowed for program participants and requiring exemptions for recipients escaping domestic violence.