By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Less than two months ago, L.A. County seemed poised for a major retreat from General Relief, a program that provides temporary, subsistence-level aid for the destitute.
In April, the Board of Supervisors approved time limits that reduced GR from nine months to a five-month-on/seven-month-off program. Next year the entitlement would drop to four months. The first 6,500 of a projected 37,000 clients were cut from the rolls. In a cruel actuarial maneuver, the county had earmarked the savings to pay off a $60 million court award owed to past GR clients whom the county had illegally shortchanged.
In late June, scores of protesters filled the boardroom and vilified the supervisors for balancing their ledger sheet on the backs of those victimized by the illegal grant cuts. A week later, demonstrations against time limits blocked traffic in the streets surrounding the county offices; six women were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly.
Today GR has rebounded. It's also been restructured, refinanced and front-loaded with a whole range of new job-training, education and health services that may finally lift some of L.A.'s poorest residents into the mainstream of society.
This stunning bureaucratic turnabout was negotiated between state legislators, general-assistance advocates and representatives of the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS). But in the end, it required an 11th-hour save by the same county officials who only weeks before had forged ahead with the cutbacks.
The agreement was closed last week in a little-noticed provision in the $76 billion state-budget agreement struck between Governor Pete Wilson and the leaders of the Legislature. The key was language enabling the county to retain its current monthly GR grant rate of $221 rather than a scheduled increase next July to $294.
In exchange for the lower dollar figure, the county has agreed to increase time limits to nine months - six months, plus a three-month extension - effective January 1, 1999. It will also cancel the estimated 20,000 in roll cuts scheduled to begin in February.
The county has agreed to finance $7.3 million in new job training and food stamps. Education and counseling services, including domestic-violence intervention programs and psychological case management, will be provided under CalWorks, the name given to California's new welfare-to-work program, which replaces the old Aid to Families With Dependent Children and includes the new Greater Avenues to Independence (GAIN) program. CalWorks was front-loaded with services because it was seen as the most logical way to expedite the transition of welfare recipients into successful, long-term employment.
In contrast to GR, which is an unfunded state mandate for counties, CalWorks is a program that's awash in money. For example, L.A. County's fiscal year 1998-99 CalWorks budget totals about $2 billion - $1.4 billion for assistance programs and $595 million for administration. It also includes $140 million in rollover funds allocated in the last fiscal year that the county could not spend before the 1997-98 budget year ended.
Although this new GR agreement does not begin until January 1, which means that existing time limits remain in effect and approximately 16,000 will be cut from the rolls through the end of 1998, Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coaliton To End Hunger and Homelessness, calls the deal a major long-term victory for the poor.
"We've been trying to get this for the past four years," Erlenbusch says. "It's a more effective, more common-sense approach. We'll also be saving money in the long run by actually training people for real jobs that will keep them off the public-assistance rolls."
Until now, all the job training received by GR clients was in soft skills: resume writing, how to dress, how to handle a job interview. Now, GR clients will be able to participate in GAIN, which provides 32 hours a week in education or real job training, through CalWorks.
In addition, Erlenbusch believes the agreement will lay the foundation for further state-level reform.
"Next we will go back to Sacramento when we have a new governor and push to end this entire unfunded mandate," says Erlenbusch. "The state has a moral obligation to share the burden of GR."
This was a deal that came perilously close to imploding. After pleading poverty at the local level, county officials took their case to the state. There, despite a $4.4 billion surplus, unrelenting pressure by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and President of the Senate John Burton, and a tireless lobbying effort by freshman Assembly Member Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), an impasse over partial state funding of GR programs was reached with the Governor's Office.
The legislators planned to fund the GR deficit through $10 million in federal and state Food Stamp and Employment Training (FSET) moneys. Cedillo also authored a companion bill, AB 2373, which would have Sacramento pick up 30 percent of the cost of general assistance from the counties.
To put it in perspective, the requested money amounted to just a fraction of 1 percent of the estimated surplus. "That doesn't even rank up there with pocket change for the state," says Cedillo.
However, this compromise was presented late in the budget negotiations, leaving Cedillo to recruit pressure from the Speaker's Office, and do a lot of arm twisting and cajoling just to get the county's new GR proposal on the radar screen.
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