Yet steps taken in recent years to cut costs and get more recipients back in the workforce have run head-on into the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. Recipients have been left with fewer training programs, shrinking welfare checks and a shorter period during which they are eligible to receive assistance at a time when employment prospects for even highly qualified job-seekers are dim.
That has led to fear and uncertainty among welfare recipients, many of whom have spent a year or more in job-preparation programs without success.
"I've been trying to look for work, but everyone has been losing their jobs and work was hard to find," said David Balaba of Sacramento, who has been on welfare since being laid off in 2009 as a merchandiser for a beverage-packaging company.
His wife lost her job working at a cafe in the Sacramento Zoo a month before his layoff, and their daughter was born shortly after.
"From there, it started to go downhill," said Balaba, 27. "We couldn't find work, we lost everything. It was like a snowball effect."
To help cut their childcare costs and living expenses, his family moved in with his parents in south Sacramento, a few miles from the state Capitol. For almost two years, Balaba has been drawing welfare checks while participating in state-funded programs designed to help him find work.
None of those programs has paid off, and with state spending cuts to welfare programs, he is receiving $300 a month from the state, less than half his previous check of $661.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Balaba is one of 4.6 million Americans on welfare amid a lasting recession that has forced lawmakers to slash budgets across the country, including for many safety-net programs.
California will spend $6 billion this fiscal year on its welfare programs, or roughly 7 percent of a general fund budget that has shrunk by $17.5 billion over the past three years.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republican lawmakers pushed successfully for welfare reforms in 2004 and have won other cutbacks and concessions since then.
Funding for CalWorks, the welfare-to-work program that is the state's main welfare service, was cut by $1 billion this year. The legislation that reduced the spending also shortened the amount of time a recipient can stay on welfare, from 60 months to 48, while also reducing monthly checks by at least 8 percent.
Lawmakers also suspended a program called Cal-Learn, which offers incentives and services for teenage parents who had dropped out of high school.
Many Republican lawmakers say the cuts need to continue because California can no longer afford all the program's costs. They say the relatively generous benefits have made California a magnet for those seeking welfare assistance.
The Legislature's budget cuts and reform measures in recent years are steps in the right direction but don't go far enough, said state Assemblyman Brian Jones, a Republican from La Mesa, near San Diego.
He said he would support cutting the amount of time adults can remain on welfare even further.
"By the time someone is on welfare for 48 months, I think they're trained to be on that system," he said. "I think we need to make it more attractive in California to get folks off of welfare instead of onto it."
The Legislature focuses too much on trying to micromanage people's lives, he said, while failing to devise productive ways to get Californians back to work.
"The welfare numbers are high because the economy is in the pits, and there doesn't seem to be a political force in Sacramento to push the reforms we need to get our economy going," said Jones, vice chairman of the Assembly Human Services Committee.
Yet recipients say a persistent recession that has given California the nation's second highest unemployment rate is just the reason not to cut welfare benefits further.
Theresa Hooks had been working as a mobile notary in Arizona when she decided in 2009 to move to California, where her grandmother had offered to help care for her children.
Shortly after the 35-year-old divorced mother of three moved to Hemet, in a semi-rural area about 90 miles east of Los Angeles, her grandmother developed an illness that left her unable to care for Hooks' children. Hooks said she then lost the three-bedroom apartment she had been living in because she couldn't afford the rent.
"That's when I ended up homeless," she said. "I could not find a job anywhere, and I applied everywhere. Not Kmart, not McDonald's. There was not one company in Hemet that would hire me."
She is among the 1.5 million Californians who depend on monthly welfare grants. California's caseload far outnumbers the rest of the country, with 3.8 percent of its population on welfare in 2010.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Health and Human Services, Maine, the state with the second highest percentage, had 2.9 percent of its population on welfare. Tennessee, New Mexico and Washington, the next three states, were at 2.5 percent.
The states with the lowest proportion of residents on welfare Wyoming, Idaho, Georgia, Texas and Illinois had less than one half of 1 percent of their population receiving state assistance.
The main reason California has such a high percentage of the nation's welfare cases is because it is one of the few states that continue to provide welfare checks for children once their parents are no longer eligible.
About three-quarters of California's welfare recipients are children age 18 and younger. Just three other states Indiana, Oregon and Rhode Island provide assistance checks to minors after their parents no longer qualify for welfare.
Yet even with the state's promise to support children, families are finding it harder to move from welfare to employment amid a stagnant job market.
California's unemployment rate has been dropping in recent months but is still second highest in the nation behind Nevada, at 11.3 percent, and remains far higher than the national rate of 8.6 percent.
After applying for welfare, Hooks moved her family into a one-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley. For the past two years, she has been studying for a degree in public relations while struggling to pay her bills with a welfare check that shrank by $76 a month to $752 in the latest round of state budget cuts. She said her ex-husband sends a little money, but she still finds herself short of cash every month.
She said her job prospects are uncertain, at best.
"I'm not trying to stay on this," she said of the state's welfare rolls. "I'm trying to get off as soon as possible."
Former President Bill Clinton supported an overhaul of the nation's traditional welfare system in 1996 by giving states more control over the money that came from the federal government, which had been used to fund cash payments. States used the new flexibility to begin funding child care services and job-assistance programs.
Welfare rates plummeted across the nation as the promise of assistance checks was connected to mandatory welfare-to-work programs.
Some 12.6 million people were on welfare nationally at the time of the overhaul, with 2.6 million of those in California. Some states have seen the number of welfare recipients decline by almost 50 percent since those changes were made. California's lowest figure was in 2007, when an average of 1.2 million people applied for state assistance.
The numbers have been creeping up since the recession began in 2007, said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project.
California's relatively high cost of living and its large number of low-wage jobs make it difficult for residents to make ends meet, she said. By 2009, California saw 1.3 million apply for state assistance, and the number has continued to climb.
"California is widely recognized as having one of the most effective programs, which is why the caseload dropped," Ross said. "What's unfortunate is that all the best pieces that work are the very pieces that have been scaled back."
The Sacramento-based nonprofit, which often advocates for union-friendly changes to state budgeting, estimates that $3.5 billion has been cut from California's welfare-to-work program since 2008. Welfare spending as a percentage of the state's overall budget has dropped by more than half since 1996, the group says.
As the Legislature cuts funding to welfare programs, the consequences are being felt by the people who rely on them.
Cal-Learn, which helped teenage parents finish their high school diplomas and gain job skills, assisted more than 11,700 people during the last year it was fully funded. Its suspension has left many of them stuck at home caring for their children because they cannot afford reliable child care.
Among them is Dana Woolensack, who said she was kicked out of her house when her family learned she was pregnant. The 19-year-old praised her Cal-Learn caseworkers for pushing her to finish a high school degree after her son was born in the hope that she could find a job and support herself.
But the program's suspension this year means she can no longer afford to go to school. She says Cal-Learn gave her a cash grant of $530 a month plus an additional $133 for transportation. Now she gets $490 a month from the state's welfare program, a reduction of $173 a month, and she has rent to pay on a Sacramento apartment.
"I know that I can do it, but it's hard, and especially when you're doing it all on your own," she said. "The program you did have is getting cut now, so it's only going to be harder."