As Congress debates putting more welfare recipients to work, local residents on Los Angeles County general relief are busily clearing storm debris from Westside beaches as part of a workfare program that has been in existence for nearly half a century.
Their services have become crucial in the wake of the recent winter storms, which have deposited hundreds of tons of debris along the oceanfront, clogging jetties, cluttering storm drains and fouling piers.
With less than a month remaining before Easter weekend--the onset of the beach-going season--tons of the detritus remain.
"We have been inundated with debris and there's still plenty out in the ocean to wash up," said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the county Department of Beaches and Harbors.
To clean up the mess, the department is relying on men and women who are picked up in groups of 94 each weekday from sites in Downtown Los Angeles and Rancho Dominguez and brought to the coast.
"We couldn't survive without them--trash would be left for days on the beaches," said Wayne Schumaker, chief of the Beach and Harbors' Safety and Sanitation Division. "You'd have dog droppings, the restrooms would be much dirtier and there'd be no landscaping. There are many critical areas that need manual work."
Said Mary Robertson, an administrator with the county's General Relief-Food Stamp Workfare program: "The public just doesn't realize that these beach services are being provided by welfare recipients."
Contrary to public perceptions of welfare recipients as layabouts on the dole, the county requires adult welfare recipients with no minor children to earn their checks by working at custodial, clerical or general maintenance duties for six days a month, she said.
The program began in 1948, when a flood of newcomers threatened to bankrupt the welfare system, said former Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, one of the few surviving officials from that era.
"There had to be some restrictions. People had to work or the county would have gone broke," said Hahn, who was a member of the Los Angeles City Council at the time. Hahn was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1952.
In 1973, the county Department of Beaches and Harbors began to call on the welfare recipients to rake up kelp and trash, remove weeds and clean stairways on the region's beaches, among other seaside jobs. The department also makes use of misdemeanor violators sentenced to beach duty instead of jail time.
In contrast to the family welfare reform plan now under debate in Congress, the county's program involves a mostly single population.
Because of staff cuts since 1990, the county has nearly doubled the number of these jobs, to 16,000. Although the slots have increased, the pool of eligible workers has tripled to about 36,000 as the county's welfare rolls have grown. As a result the percentage of those eligible for the program who are actually working for their welfare has dropped from 70% four years ago to about 40% today, Robertson said.
Most of those who work for the Department of Beaches and Harbors get a fixed monthly stipend of $212 and food stamps worth $115. They work about eight hours a day, six days a month, at the minimum wage rate of $4.25 an hour.
This month, taxpayers have been getting their money's worth.
Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades on a recent morning looked like the aftermath of a perverse archeological dig. Dozens of workers wearing orange vests and holding well-worn rakes battled to gather shoes, plastic foam cups and motor oil cans. Bulldozers pushed piles of collected trash and tons of scattered driftwood into dump trucks.
Some workers marveled at the variety of debris collected over the last few weeks: dead possums, cats, dogs and rats. Couches and armchairs have turned up. A BMW was found in the creek near Topanga State Beach.
"We're also finding about eight to 10 hypodermic needles a day, and I'd like to know where those are coming from," said Kevin Matthews, a Beaches and Harbors supervisor.
Though the pay is barely enough to live on--many workers board together in cheap Downtown hotels and rely on food stamps--many of them are able to acquire a few skills in their beach jobs. They learn punctuality, the use of some light machinery and horticulture skills such as weeding and planting. Camaraderie comes with their efforts. And the work, though limited, can bring hope.
"They should (permanently) hire the people that work here," said Michael Ruffin, a clear-eyed and energetic man who has been in the workfare beach detail for more than a year. "We know the equipment, we know the terrain, we even train the newer workers. It's been talked about a few times but has never happened."
Although some welfare recipients have been put on staff in the past, "There is very little hiring at the county level due to the budget situation and probably won't be in the near future," Robertson said.