In an attempt to combat fraud and an alarming increase in postal theft, Los Angeles County plans to stop sending welfare payments through the mail and instead require recipients to pick up their checks.
The change is envisioned as the first step toward replacing welfare checks with an ATM-style "electronics benefits transfer system" being explored by social service agencies nationwide.
In such a system--which could be years away--recipients would be issued coded plastic cards, allowing them to draw payments from machines designed to pay welfare and other social service benefits such as food stamps.
For now, the Department of Public Social Services is awaiting federal approval to begin a program in which the county's 300,000 welfare families would obtain their monthly checks at 70 check-cashing outlets that contract with the county.
The proposal, in effect in several other states but never attempted in California, is described as a more efficient delivery system. However, advocates of welfare recipients worry that eliminating mail service would create long delays for recipients and particular hardship for those without transportation or who are disabled.
"This is definitely a step in the right direction in terms of modernizing the delivery of benefits," said Sandra Semtner, the agency's finance division chief.
The new system would end the department's reliance on the Postal Service in an era in which robberies of Los Angeles mail carriers have soared--particularly on the first of the month, when welfare checks are delivered.
Mail delivery is "an archaic way to go," Semtner said.
The new check distribution program could start this summer with approval of county supervisors and the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees the distribution of welfare money to families under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program.
Numerous other governmental agencies have moved away from the mail as a means to deliver welfare payments. In New York and Chicago, where postal robberies are far less frequent than in Los Angeles, welfare payments are distributed at independent outlets. Maryland has implemented an electronic benefits system for more than 200,000 recipients. Texas is looking at expanding a pilot program begun in Houston.
Under the Los Angeles program, families receiving payments would be required to pick up their checks at one of 70 check-cashing outlets. The outlets would also be responsible for issuing food stamps and checks to about 90,000 individuals on general relief. About 80% of all families receiving welfare now make monthly trips to 44 of these outlets to pick up food stamps.
To smooth service, check-cashing agencies under contract with the county would be required to add more clerks on the first of the month, and recipients would pick up their checks at assigned times during the first 10 days of the month. Recipients would also have the convenience of picking up their food stamps at the same time as their welfare checks.
However, a coalition of community and business leaders is denouncing the plan, saying that it would make life harder on recipients and give an unfair business advantage to check-cashing companies under contract with the county.
"If the mom-and-pop grocers and neighborhood check cashiers are closed because of a decline in business (due to their inability to obtain a county contract), the community will lose," said Larry Wiggs, spokesman for Community Financial Service Providers, a coalition of check-cashing agencies. The coalition contends that a handful of large companies received the majority of county contracts, cutting out smaller ones.
Critics also complain that the county has provided too few outlets to handle the crush of recipients. They said the system would force recipients to stand hours in line to obtain and cash their checks, and that recipients would become easy prey for thieves on their way home.
"If the problem is checks being stolen from the mails, why don't (government agencies) do more to protect the mailmen?" asked Yvonne Williams, 33, a Watts mother on welfare. "They don't seem to care what happens to me if I get robbed walking home from one of these check-cashing places."
The debate comes as the Los Angeles area is experiencing a rash of postal robberies on "check day." Half of all U.S. postal robberies in 1994 occurred in the Los Angeles area.
Desperate to reduce the crime, postal inspectors last year created a task force to monitor mail deliveries on welfare check delivery day.
In Watts, where the frequency of attacks on letter carriers prompted officials this year to suspend delivery to six blocks, residents are required to pick up their mail at their post office on the first of the month. Postal authorities this year also began urging residents in a wide variety of neighborhoods to keep a lookout for carriers delivering mail.
Added security on the first of the month appears to have had an effect, according to crime statistics from Wednesday. Postal Service officials said there were three robberies, compared to as many as 10 on the first day of other months.
In line at her post office to pick up her mail Wednesday, Felicia Washington said she would not mind a system in which she had to pick up her welfare checks.
"I'd rather come here to pick it up than to have it lost or stolen and have nothing," she said.