Out of Time: Asian Americans, Time Limits, and Welfare Reform in California

Article excerpt


Perhaps the most significant change in federal welfare reform policy in 1996 was the sixty-month lifetime limit. An identical change was also made at the state level in California in 1998. When the first cohort of welfare recipients reached its lifetime limit, or timed out, in California on 1 January 2003, a disproportionate number of timed-out individuals shared a common characteristic--they were Asian American. After disaggregating country-level data, one can see that the majority of Asian Americans who were timed out were of Southeast Asian descent. Analysis indicates that Asian Americans are disproportionately represented in the timed-out cohort because they face barriers that place them in the "hard-to-employ" category of welfare recipients. For Asian Americans, these barriers include: mental and physical health issues, low educational attainment, limited work experience, and limited English proficiency. In addition to falling into the hard-to-employ category, Asian Americans are also impeded in their attempts to move off of welfare before reaching their lifetime limit by stringent and constrictive "work-first" policies. It is the purpose of this article to analyze the factors leading to a disproportionate number of Asian Americans in California being pushed off of welfare because they reach their lifetime welfare time limit of sixty months, even though they are employed during their time on welfare.


Hien Vo, a 55-year-old father of three, was once an agricultural engineer in his native Vietnam. Vo came to San Jose, California, as a refugee following the Vietnam War. But, speaking only halting English, he could only find work at a local hotel as a busboy, waiter, and kitchen worker. His total monthly income was less than $1,500 per month. He received public assistance in the form of supplemental income and took part in a California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) Career Advancement Program studying computers, accounting, and tax preparation. In December 2002, Vo was well into his studies and looked to open his own tax office, but knew he needed more time to complete his studies and gain financial grounding. On 1 January 2003, however, Vo lost all of his benefits because he reached his sixty-month time limit for receiving public assistance under the CalWORKs program. With all his benefits discontinued, Vo was unable to complete any of his training programs (de Sa 2002).

As unfortunate as Vo's experience has been, more unfortunate is the data that shows Hien Vo is one of many. In Vo's home county of Santa Clara alone, more than 1,200 families on public assistance had parents timed out (1) on benefits in January 2003. Of these 1,200 families, 80 percent were Vietnamese refugees with limited English ability, and 64 percent were working while on welfare (de Sa 2002). In Los Angeles County, nearly 37 percent of those cases affected by the time limit in January 2003 were Asian American, the most of any racial subgroup (Moreno et al. 2004). In Alameda County, 72 percent of the Vietnamese Americans who reached their time limit in 2003 were working while on public assistance (National Asian Pacific Women's Forum 2002).

As this data and the story of Hien Vo demonstrate, too many Asian Americans in California are being pushed off of welfare because they reach their lifetime welfare time limit of sixty months despite being employed during their time on welfare. Like Vo, many Asian American welfare recipients are employed but do not make a sufficient wage that would allow them to move off the welfare rolls. If the current trend continues, there will be a large number of Asian Americans, particularly Southeast Asian Americans, who will continue to face extreme financial hardship but will be ineligible for government assistance. In this way, welfare loses its original purpose of providing a safety net for all Americans who fall on hard financial times. …