One in seven Los Angeles County residents is receiving welfare payments or benefits as a growing number of frustrated job seekers turn to the county’s social safety net to weather the region’s persistent recession, officials said Monday.
A record 1,335,847 county residents received food stamps, general relief and other county-administered aid in December, 1991, according to the most recent study by the Department of Public Social Services.
The welfare caseload has increased 51% since June, 1988. For 20 consecutive months through December, the county has set new records for the total number of clients served. In all, 14.8% of the population--the highest proportion ever--is now dependent on the county for food, medical care or other vital needs, county records show.
Sociologists and county officials say the county has entered a “social emergency” of historic proportions--one which is expected to cost taxpayers $2.1 billion this year. And welfare caseworkers say they have noticed a dramatic change in the kind of person seeking public assistance.
“We have people coming in here with college degrees,” said Jacqueline Davis, an eligibility worker and 14-year veteran of the welfare department. “Their unemployment benefits run out and they have no other place to go but the welfare office. Even though the benefits are low, it’s the only way they can feed their families.
“They’re so embarrassed,” she said. “Some of them never dreamed, in their wildest dreams, that they would end up here.”
Jennifer Wolch, a USC professor of urban affairs, said the dramatic increase in welfare recipients is linked to the decline of jobs in the low-wage sectors of the economy. Thousands of unskilled workers who once filled manufacturing and service jobs have been out of work for six months or longer. January unemployment in Los Angeles County was 8.6%, higher than the 7.1% national figure.
“There are very few options for people to get back on a productive track,” said Wolch, who has written extensively on poverty and homelessness. “And the situation only seems to be getting worse.”
Wolch said recent layoffs in the Southern California automotive and aerospace industries have had a ripple effect throughout the entire economy.
More than 400,000 of the county’s 9 million residents exhausted their unemployment benefits last year, according to the state Employment Development Department. Like the welfare caseload, the number of people who have used up their 39-week unemployment compensation increased 50% in 1991.
“You can definitely see a correlation between the unemployment rate and the (welfare) caseload,” said Paul Fast, research director for the county social services department. “People on the margins feel the drop in the economy first.”
Ill-equipped to deal with the growing multitude of indigent people, county welfare offices routinely descend into what one official called “organized chaos,” with firefighters sometimes summoned to disperse crowds when waiting rooms fill to capacity.
Monday was a typically busy day at county welfare offices, as thousands of people came to apply for General Relief payments and to pick up checks for Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
About 400 people filled the lobby of the welfare department’s Echo Park office. Outside, another 300 rain-soaked men and women waited in a line that snaked around one corner of the building. Most waited for the $341 monthly checks that are issued to single adults.
They yelled at county Safety Police officers to allow them in, shoving forward welfare paperwork and calling out in English, Spanish, Armenian and other languages. Three harried officers inside could only bark out orders.
“Get away! Get away from the door!” one officer yelled as he pushed a prospective welfare client back into the surging crowd. “If you don’t have a number, you’re not going to get in.”
After nearly three hours in the rain, Ron, a 30-year-old unemployed talent agent who declined to give his last name, was near the front of the line. Once inside, he faced the prospect of waiting another three hours in the lobby to see an eligibility worker.
“It’s worth the wait if you get what you came for,” he said. “You waste your whole day waiting for food stamps, but then at least you can eat for a while. That’s the attitude of most people here.”
Ron explained that he had lost his job with the talent agency, where he represented television writers.
“The company just couldn’t pay the rent and pay the bills,” he said. “If this place (the welfare office) didn’t exist, I’d be stealing and resorting to criminal means to eat.”
About an hour earlier, he had watched as officers tended to a woman who had suffered a seizure while standing in line. She was sprawled on the wet sidewalk. “Do you have any chronic illnesses?” one of the policemen asked.
Inside the office, District Director Gerald Elijah explained the efforts to control the growing crowds, including distributing numbers to the people waiting outside. “It’s not chaotic in the sense that no one knows what’s going on,” he said. “It’s organized chaos.”
Throughout the county, the social services department is serving a record number of clients in all its programs. According to its most recent study, released in February:
* 77,493 county residents are receiving General Relief payments, a 38.4% increase since December, 1990.
* Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the department’s largest program, is now distributed to 722,086 people, a 13% increase over the same period.
* 360,781 people receive Medi-Cal benefits, a 24.3% increase in 1991.
The record numbers come as Gov. Pete Wilson is proposing a sweeping reform of the welfare system that would reduce family benefits immediately by 10%. The initial cut would followed by another 15% rollback after six months if an able-bodied recipient were not working.
Wilson is also trying to place a welfare-reform initiative on the November ballot.
Wilson Administration officials have argued that the current recession has had a limited impact on the growing welfare caseload.
“The major caseload growth in the program has less to do with the overall economy and more to do with demographic and societal factors such as teen births and the escalating unwed pregnancy rate,” said Russell S. Gould, secretary of the California Health and Welfare Agency.
However, an agency spokeswoman acknowledged Monday that the recession may account for a third of the recent increase.
Welfare advocates have pointed out that the fastest growing welfare program in Los Angeles County--General Relief--is open only to adults without children. They have criticized Wilson’s proposal, saying it seeks to make the poor scapegoats for the recession.
“Everybody wants to blame somebody,” said Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor who has represented welfare clients in class-action suits. “The people who have money and power say, ‘It’s we rich people and the middle class against the poor people.’ But that just isn’t the reality of the situation.”
Supervisor Ed Edelman also said he opposes the Wilson proposal. “What we need to do is to get the economy moving again,” he said. “The economic recession has hit the people who are most vulnerable.”
His board colleague Supervisor Deane Dana suggested that illegal immigration is partly to blame for the welfare increase. However, Dana, too, pointed to the recession as a factor. “More and more people are out of work and can’t find jobs. This is causing a growing burden on our general relief program, which is paid for entirely by the county taxpayers. The question is, how are we going to fund it?”
Meanwhile, the skyrocketing caseload and the resulting overcrowding has led to an increase in tension at welfare offices, prompting the department to take additional security measures, including the installation of metal detectors.
“I’ve been in this business for 30 years, but I’ve never had to have security until now,” said Gloria Cuevas, director of the Metro North payments office west of downtown. The office handles mostly AFDC cases. “You’d think that an office that deals with families and children wouldn’t need metal detectors.”
With the number of clients growing, social workers at the Metro North office now handle caseloads of 240 or more. Cuevas said she does not expect the numbers to drop soon, pointing to recent layoffs and increases in the unemployment rate.
“Before, we saw a lot of people who had more or less grown up on welfare,” she said. “Now we’re seeing people who have always been employed and who are frustrated because they can’t find work.”
Welfare Recipients in L.A. County
A record 1,335,847 people are now receiving food stamps, general relief and other welfare payments or benefits from the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services. One in seven county residents (14.8% of the county population) is receiving such benefits. The number of welfare recipients has increased every month since July, 1988. The following chart shows the trend since 1982.
Jan. 1982: 955,718
Low point--July 1988: 884,846
High point--Dec. 1991: 1,335,847
Source: Department of Public Social Services
Note: January 1993 drop was the result of federal welfare reform changes.