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L.A. County's Poorest Catch a Break

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.

"It wasn't just that it was late. It was beyond late," says Cedillo. "L.A. County hasn't generated a lot of good will up here. And now people were angry that the county was coming forward with this proposal long after the budget deadline."

Moreover, while half of the proposed funds are federal dollars, all the money would have been administered by the state, and Pete Wilson was loath to participate in distributing cash assistance to what he terms "able-bodied adults." Wilson refused to sign off.

As it became clear that the whole GR compromise might be lost, Elena Lopez-Aldridge, a staffer for Speaker Villaraigosa, orchestrated a late-night conference call between her office, L.A. County Chief Legis-lative Analyst Phil Ansell, Sacramento lobbyist for DPSS Gail Groner, Cedillo chief of staff Dan Savage and Erlenbusch.

"Quite simply, the bottom line was, what do we do now?" explains Erlenbusch. "We had to decide right then and there, because we had to tell the Speaker."

A critical player in this debate was Savage. Now that Wilson had gutted the funding, Savage was opposed to giving L.A. County the right to maintain its GR grants at $221, since it was unclear what the poor would get in return. Plus, there was still no commitment on the proposed CalWorks job-training program and support services, items that Savage and Erlenbusch demanded be included for GR recipients.

"Initially, I was infuriated at the county advocates," says Savage. "The only reason I finally changed my mind and supported that language was that Bob [Erlenbusch] convinced me in our conference call that GR folks would see a net financial gain over the nine-month period."

It was Ansell who ultimately saved the day. He told his fellow conference callers there were three solid votes on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for extending the time limits and financing the job training and extra resources. Understandably, Supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Gloria Molina, whose districts are hardest hit by the GR cuts, supported the deal. The other endorsement surprisingly came from Don Knabe, a conservative.

"The supervisor has been completely supportive of this plan ever since our people at DPSS came up with it," explains Knabe press aide John Wallace. "First, we get to keep our lowest grant level. Second, the money is being used for mandatory job training." Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a nominal liberal who voiced early and strong opposition to extended GR benefits, could not be reached for comment on his position at press time.

Savage says Ansell's unexpected announcement that the county actually had the money to cover the new job-training and support services for GR clients only heightened his distrust of the L.A. officials.

Cedillo "used up a lot of capital to try and push this item through. It would have been nice if the county had dealt with us straight up, so that we would have known what funding was really available," he says.

"I was also real clear with these folks [L.A. County]," adds Savage, "that they had better get three supes to vote for this entire package when it comes before them, or there are going to be a lot of really pissed-off people up here in Sacramento."

Ansell says he fully expects the supervisors to approve the proposal, with the $7.3 million to pay for the added services. The formal board endorsement and organization of the new GR/CalWorks programs are slated for this fall.

Erlenbusch says he was not surprised that the county had the money to finance the CalWorks-style program for GR, considering it has a reserve of $161 million. He adds that the county could easily afford to reinstate the people cut from GR this year.

Adds Erlenbusch, "The real test will come when people finish their six months and try to qualify for the three-month extension. Then we'll have to see if the county tries to weasel out of its commitment."


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