Indifference Toward Indigent

Sometimes it takes a cataclysm to remind us that we depend on each other more than we often take time to acknowledge. San Francisco's 15-second earthquake Tuesday is such an event, one that reaches out even as far as Orange County.

Here, however, a crisis of a different sort is evolving, one that has been building up pressure over the last 15 or 20 years. It has to do with the county's indifference to its indigent. Partly because of the county's very affluence, many who have lived on the economic edge have slipped over and are finding it harder and harder to get back into the mainstream. What is needed now is something that has not been provided to this point: leadership and vision on the part of the Board of Supervisors in the areas of welfare, housing and health.

Take, for example, the workfare program, part of the General Relief program for indigent adults that is fully funded at the county level. As Supervisor Roger R. Stanton pointed out in The Times' series last week: "Does Orange County Care?" it is politic to support workfare as a way to keep laggards off the welfare rolls. If cost savings is the goal, however, it is a failure. The county itself has done no cost studies since 1982, but a Times analysis indicated the program is actually losing money for the county. As for instilling the work ethic in recipients, the lesson is lost on opportunists while those who really want jobs find it virtually impossible to fulfill their work assignments while looking for a job.

The series also pointed out that the county's health care crisis is worsening, particularly in two areas: the closing of trauma centers, which are money-losing operations for hospitals, and obstetrical care for indigent mothers. The Orange County Health Care Task Force compared the obstetrical problem to a "3.5 Richter scale precursor to a 9.5 health-care earthquake."

Part of the health crisis has to do with state funding formulas that heavily favor urban counties. But also the county spends fewer dollars per capita on health care for the poor than other counties.

As for housing, the board six years ago caved into pressure from builders whom it had earlier required to build low- and moderate-income housing as a part of all new housing projects. The board had counted on free-market forces to provide affordable housing, but so far that has failed. Combined with few efforts by cities to build low-cost housing, and the county's overheated housing market, it is no surprise that the homeless now number 10,000, half of them children.

There are some indications the board is beginning to register the seriousness of the problems. Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder helped organize a health conference last week focusing on indigent health care. And more attention is being paid to advocates for the poor.

What is needed now is leadership, and that is something that the board has a unique responsibility to provide.

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