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Valley Interview : Lawyer Sees the Poor Struggle Against Poverty’s Vicious Cycle

Lew Hollman is a senior attorney at San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services Inc. The nonprofit center in Pacoima provides legal assistance to low-income residents and advocates on their behalf in court. The center has been involved in civil suits against government agencies and private parties on matters that adversely affect the poor.

During the 17 years that he has worked at the organization, Hollman has assisted many welfare recipients. He notes that the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the center. He was interviewed by Times staff writer Jocelyn Y. Stewart.

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Question: What has been the trend over the last few years in terms of welfare assistance?

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Answer: In real value, welfare assistance has declined since the early 1970s. There was actually a period in the late 1970s when benefits were going up somewhat because California had an automatic cost of living increase. But assistance has dropped very dramatically, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years. The actual benefit levels today in real terms are lower than they were 20 years ago. When you adjust the real purchasing power of benefits, they haven’t kept up with the cost of living. That’s particularly heightened in California, especially in Los Angeles, because the housing costs here are higher than almost any other place in the country.

Q. In his proposed budget, Gov. Pete Wilson has included more cuts . How do families cope with less assistance?

A. It’s hard work to be poor. You have to be constantly looking for every piece of assistance you can get. You have to find out which churches you can go to to get a coat for your children when theirs are stolen or worn out. You have to know where you can get sandwiches toward the end of the month when you don’t have enough food left.

Many people are reduced to begging, which is something one saw rarely 15 or 20 years ago. Routinely I see mothers with children at the Hughes Market in Mission Hills on Sepulveda. I see them at Alpha Beta where I shop in Sylmar. I see them in the parking lot at Pace. These are people who can’t meet their very basic needs with the government benefits that they receive.

Q. What is the relationship between welfare benefits and homelessness?

A. That is why there is an incredible problem of homelessness in California. The benefit levels are simply not at a high enough level to enable people to get affordable housing, and you have a phenomenon that we’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 years where housing becomes an optional expense for families. Sometimes families give up housing because they can’t pay for housing and meet their other needs. They will periodically move in with relatives. Periodically they will sleep in the car. And periodically they will find themselves in shelters.

What I see as perhaps one of the hardest things about being poor is living in constant uncertainty and stress. You can never build a stable household when you don’t know if you can pay your rent the next month, when you run out of food toward the end of every month and don’t know how you’re going to feed your children. This is the kind of tension people live with trying to make ends meet. It’s incredible.

Q. Some have argued that because benefit levels are actually too low to solely support recipient families, many welfare recipients end up working or find other ways of getting money. Have you seen this in your clients?

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A. There’s a perception sometimes that a lot of people on welfare are working on the side. It’s impossible to know exactly, but my own opinion is there are not a lot of people who are able to--simply because there aren’t jobs for most of the people who are on welfare. Any jobs that provide decent wages are legal and are reported and people know that the state cross-checks unemployment insurance tax and Franchise Tax Board information with the Welfare Department. If people work and don’t report it, they get caught. People on welfare are required to report all earnings.

Q. What about those people who might want to work but need some assistance?

A. There are disincentives toward people working their way off welfare because their costs go up and their income can go down. In other words, the costs of employment can negate any gains they get. What’s really remarkable, though, is that people struggle very hard to get off welfare. Most people hate being dependent on welfare and would prefer employment. The problem is the employment isn’t there.

Q. What is your opinion of President Clinton’s proposed welfare reform that would require welfare recipients to work after two years of training?

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A. I don’t know anyone who works in the field of welfare that doesn’t want to end welfare as we know it. The part that most of us like about the proposal is that after the end of those two years, if people can’t find jobs, jobs will be found for them.

What is distressing about the plan is that, at the same time, the Clinton Administration says the overall costs of the plan won’t go up. There’s a contradiction between those two things. It costs money to create jobs, and that has been the major reason why programs that succeed in transitioning people off welfare have not been pursued. They cost more.

In the long run they would cost less. You could break the cycle of poverty if you gave them training and were supportive of their employment until they had the skills and the experience to continue or find a job in the private sector.

The kind of reform that is reform in name only is what Gov. Wilson has proposed. After six months on welfare, you cut the grants across the board if the people haven’t found jobs. That’s called welfare reform, but really that’s just deficit reduction on the backs of poor people. Everyone knows the jobs aren’t there for these people.

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Q. If we’re looking at a situation now where even people with college degrees and many years of experience are unemployed and unable to find jobs, how then can a program expect to, in two years, train a person to go out into that same job market and find a job?

A. That is indeed the challenge. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to it. I think that you are going to have to create economic opportunity. You’re going to have to train people to do work that is necessary in the economy, and I think that can be done.

Most economists believe that what ended the Depression in the ‘30s was production gearing up for World War II. It seems to me that if production can be geared up for a totally socially destructive enterprise like war and generate jobs and stimulate the economy, we ought to be able to do it for more positive things. We ought to be able to do it to build houses, to build roads, to build schools, to build hospitals.

Q. What’s fueling the current climate of welfare reform and reduction?

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A. It’s the economy that has generated both the increases in welfare costs and the frustration of people about the existing welfare system. In the 20th Century, we have to recognize that in a modern, industrial society being unemployed and without funds doesn’t mean you’re immoral. But when people see budget deficits, when they see services declining, when they’re worried about their own jobs, they get very frustrated about welfare payments, and it’s very easy to translate that frustration into anger at the people who are on welfare. Some politicians are willing to feed into that frustration and anger.

Q. There’s also been some discussion about generational welfare. For example a woman who might have been on welfare with a child and that child, now a teen-ager or young adult, is now on welfare, creating a continuous cycle of poverty.

A. First of all I think a lot of that discussion, about the so-called underclass, is exaggerated. There are people who are skeptical of any sociological concept that sort of defines itself only in terms of a negative behavior.

In other words, you look at the small percentage of people on welfare who have been there for two or three generations, and you try to define them as a uniform group of some sort.

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There’s a story: Ernest Hemingway once was talking to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald said, “Ernest, you know rich people are different than we are.” And Hemingway said, “That’s right. They have more money.”

My own view is that poor people are different from us--they have a lot less money. But the similarities are a lot greater than the differences. When people interview people on welfare, including families that have been on for a couple of generations, their aspirations and their goals for their children are just the same as most middle-class families. They would like their kids to get a job. They would like a home of their own.

Q. What will it take to help families that have been on welfare for a long time and others find jobs and become self-sufficient?

A. What it will take to get families that have been on welfare a long time off is education and economic opportunity. That’s very simple it seems to me, and people want to make it more complicated like they have some character defect, and it’s just not true.

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