Bid to Ease 'Harshness' of Welfare Cutoff Fails

Times Staff Writer

A compromise attempt to "reduce the harshness" of a controversial 60-day denial of benefits imposed on thousands of general relief recipients who fail to meet certain job-search requirements was rejected Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The modification, proposed by Supervisor Ed Edelman, was opposed on two fronts. Advocates of the homeless who oppose sanctions of any kind said that Edelman's approach, which called for the length of penalties to be based on the number of infractions, did not go far enough.

Board conservatives Pete Schabarum and Deane Dana, on the other hand, voted to retain the penalty, citing a welfare department projection that Edelman's plan could cost the county an additional $12 million a year.

The proposal was defeated on a 2-2 vote. Edelman was joined by Kenneth Hahn in voting for it. At least three votes on the five-member board were needed for passage. Supervisor Mike Antonovich was absent.

Automatic Appeals

Edelman's defeat was underscored by welfare department figures showing that nearly 86% of the 10,000 people penalized between July and December, 1985, failed to take advantage of automatic appeals. The figures also indicated that recipients who fought the threatened cutoff of their grants had a slightly better than even chance of winning.

Speculation on why most of those penalized did not fight the funding cutoff focused largely on one factor: The recipients did not receive the welfare department's appeal notices because they were mailed to addresses abandoned due to lack of funds. The board, at Edelman's insistence, ordered welfare officials to improve the appeal notification.

Edelman managed to win support for several companion efforts that included directing welfare officials to improve methods of helping the homeless find jobs. But he clearly had placed most of his hopes on softening the 60-day penalty, which each month is imposed on about 1,700 general relief recipients among the more than 17,000 recipients determined to be employable by welfare officials.

The penalty was ordered by the board's conservative majority four years ago and has served as a protest rallying point for the homeless ever since. Those general relief recipients who welfare officials determine are employable and who then fail to complete a number of job search-related activities, such as lining up interviews or working off their grants by doing chores for the county, are subject to the 60-day penalty.

Advocates for the homeless contend that the penalty has been unfairly imposed on recipients who have fulfilled most requirements but for one reason or another fail to complete one or two of the prescribed job activities. Welfare director Eddy S. Tanaka said, however, that in recent months, only "willful and flagrant" violators have faced a cutoff of benefits.

Edelman, however, was unconvinced by Tanaka's argument and--pointing to the department's figures showing the high number who fail to fight the penalty--he said, "It looks good on paper. It sounds good until you look at the facts. Then you realize that the system isn't working."

Looking directly at Tanaka, Edelman said the 60-day penalty is too harsh for first-time offenders.

No Middle Ground

"Under these regulations, it has to be imposed. There's nothing in between," Edelman said. "It's 60 days or nothing.

"There's no warning. There's nothing," Edelman said. "And what I can't understand is why as an administrator, you (Tanaka) don't want the flexibility to handle the problems in a way that you can use a scalpel rather than a hatchet."

Also attacking Tanaka's defense of present practices was attorney Nancy Mintie of the Inner-City Law Center, whose impassioned indictment of the 60-day rule drew scattered applause.

"There's a law in the state of California that makes it a crime, punishable by jail and a big fine, to turn a dog out on the street," Mintie said. "And here we have a law (the 60-day penalty) in Los Angeles County that mandates doing that to human beings."

Mintie said a more effective method would be to deny benefits until such time as the person was willing to comply with job-search requirements. The penalty, she added, merely exacerbates the homeless problem.

"That period of 60 days creates disabilities," Mintie said. "Being on the streets for two months makes people unemployable."

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