L.A. on $7.37 a Day 

One woman's life on General Relief

Wednesday, Jul 21 1999
Photo by Anne Fishbein
JOANIE MURRAY* GETS HER $221 GENERAL RELIEF CHECK on the eighth day of every month, and today is the 8th of April. In addition to the $221, Joanie will get $125 in food stamps, the maximum allowed on GR. This seems like an unnervingly small amount to stretch over 30 days of life in present-day Los Angeles, but she says she can usually do it. "People ask me how I get by on that little money, and I tell 'em, 'Carefully, very carefully!'" Joanie says, grinning at her own joke. "I just have to hope I don't get robbed, or need some new shoes, or something doesn't go wrong with my teeth. On GR, if you've got a toothache, they don't want to fill it, they only want to pull it, so I got to save up if I want my teeth cleaned or filled."

Last month, for all her budgeting, Joanie ran out of money a week early. The good news was she still had a little food left in the fridge, plus four bus tokens stashed in the small metal box she keeps on the kitchen counter by the stove. Bus tokens are a big issue, since she lives in Hollywood and the check-cashing facility where she picks up her benefits is a block away from the Coliseum. Nearly all the destinations in her life -- job interviews, appointments with relief workers, visits with her daughter or her mother -- require bus tokens, which she buys in packets of 10 for $9. At $42, monthly passes are a better deal, but such an expenditure doesn't fit into her budget. "So I mainly end up just not going a lot of places," she says.

One month recently, the 8th arrived and Joanie was completely out of food and tokens. She had only the money to take the bus one way, which would have been fine except that when she arrived at the check-cashing outlet, the girl at the window told her there was a problem with her check. So there she was with no money, no way to get home and no food in her tiny single apartment when she got there. Joanie walked the three miles to the Social Services office, where an indifferent caseworker took down her complaint. The "problem" turned out to be a clerical error on the county's part, and the worker told her she'd get her check in 10 days. Joanie made it home by persuading a sympathetic bus driver to let her ride free just this once. Then she called friends until she found somebody who could lend her a few bucks to buy food. "That's GR," she says. "You never know when they're gonna mess up and you get nothing at all."

In the beleaguered and fraying system of financial safety nets known as public assistance, General Relief is the net of last resort. It is mandated by the state of California to provide a basic economic floor for the state's poorest single adults who don't qualify for any other program. Yet, although the state requires GR, it is up to the counties to fund and administer the program. In the case of Los Angeles, this is a formidable burden. L.A. County has 29 percent of the state's population but carries 63 percent of the state's GR caseload. As a consequence, in the last few years, when budget-strapped county supervisors went looking for significant cuts, they began to cast their collective gaze toward GR. At first the supervisors merely shaved benefits. Ever since 1992, when the maximum was at $341, the supervisors have been steadily shaving benefits, until in 1996 they cut the maximum monthly payout to $221 -- $188 if the recipient shares a place with a friend or relative. Then, in 1997, when faced with the alternative of unpopular cutbacks in hospital and fire-department budgets, the county instead slashed into the structure of General Relief itself. It used to be that recipients could stay on GR indefinitely. Now, as a result of the '97 cuts, all those physically able to work are to be terminated at the end of nine months -- whether or not they've found jobs. They are then allowed to apply again three months later.

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The number of L.A. residents tossed off GR will not be as massive as the quarter-million county mothers slated to be dumped from CalWORKs (formerly known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children) on January 1, 2003. Rather, GR terminations are scheduled to roll out in waves starting this November at the rate of up to 4,000 recipients a month. Joanie Murray's benefits will terminate on November 8, 1999.

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