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County Welfare Recipients Brace for State Cuts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Danny Rendon, an unemployed welder, is not accustomed to thinking of himself as the target of a conspiracy. But the welfare cuts approved by the state Legislature early Wednesday, and Gov. Pete Wilson’s announcement that he would approve them today, make him wonder.

Rendon, 34, who is raising five children ages 3 to 14, receives almost every welfare benefit that the Legislature wants to either reduce or severely restrict.

Wednesday afternoon, he and three of his children--Rachel, 3, Jeremy, 5, and Jennifer, 6--were waiting for their August welfare check at a county Social Services Agency office in Anaheim when he learned that under the $58.9-billion budget, welfare payouts would decrease 4.9% as of Oct. 1.

With no place to live, Rendon also was there seeking emergency housing assistance when he found that the Legislature had limited the number of times a person may apply for welfare to just once in a lifetime, rather than once every two years. His wife, from whom he is separated, already has received emergency housing assistance once, and whether he will be allowed to reapply in two years’ time, or ever, is unclear, he said.

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“Those people in the Legislature don’t realize what it’s like to be struggling, what it’s like when you ain’t got nowhere to live or nothing to eat,” Rendon said, cuddling Rachel and gesturing with her yellow-haired rag doll.

“My kids haven’t even eaten today,” Rendon said. “Let those legislators be thrown into this position. I never thought I’d be homeless; I’m a licensed welder and electrician. But I have five kids and no help.”

The federal government must approve the welfare cuts. State officials, however, are confident the cuts will be approved, since the Clinton Administration has said it will act within a month on waivers increasing the states’ power over their welfare programs.

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Should the federal government approve the cuts, aid for a family of three would decrease from $607 to $577 a month; for a family of four, from $723 to $687, and for a family such as Rendon’s, with a parent and five children, from $926 to $881.

Supplemental Security Income and general relief benefits also would be reduced by 4.9%.

By contrast, the federal poverty level for a family of two is a monthly income of $1,087, for three it is $1,364, and for four it is $1,642.

“So anyone who makes disparaging comments about persons who are on public assistance living this gravy life probably is unaware of the fact that these are, to put it mildly, barely subsistence levels to begin with,” said Angelo Doti, director of financial assistance for the county Social Services Agency, which handles more than 300,000 applications each year.

More cuts could be on the way. The state also is awaiting federal approval to permit a 2.3% cut in welfare grants that it sought a year ago, but which was held up in court.

Not all welfare recipients would suffer. Those who work, in accordance with state regulations allowing welfare recipients to earn up to $750 a month without losing their benefits, would not see any reduction in their income, Doti said.

“That’s another part of the governor’s Work Pays plan,” Doti said. “Everyone who works, well, it’s to their advantage.

“Every year the aid payment goes down, the greater the inducement [becomes] for people to obtain employment,” Doti said.

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The state budget also includes a work-incentive provision requiring counties to provide welfare applicants with information about their options to work while in many cases keeping most of their benefits. State officials say many welfare recipients who otherwise would work do not seek employment because they believe their benefits would be forfeited.

Maria Hernandez, 19, said she would work if she could, but one of her 4-month-old twins spends half the day on a breathing monitor because of apnea, and she cannot leave her.

“I think that a lot of people who really don’t need the help have made things bad for those of us who do,” she said. “But this will hurt us if it happens. They should know that there are people, like us, who really need the help.”

Gilda Pola and her 4-month-old daughter, Justice, also needed help, immediately. Snafus at the Social Services Agency had caused her to miss a welfare check, she said, which in turn led to her eviction from her apartment.

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“I’m here today to get emergency help for housing,” she said. Pola also received housing assistance about two years ago, and if the governor signs the budget package, she may not be eligible ever again.

“That is so messed up, what they’re doing,” said Pola, a student at Newbridge College in Tustin. “But hopefully it won’t hurt me too much. I’m going to be getting off this as fast as I can.”

It is Pola’s attitude that state officials say they hoped to encourage by proposing to limit housing assistance to once in a lifetime, with few exceptions.

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A state audit of the housing assistance program showed that 26% of recipients reapply for aid every two years, waiting out the current time limit and misusing what is meant to be a boost during hard times.

“The whole intent is to get people over the hurdle of not having homes and not cycle through once every two years,” said a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

“There will be some exceptions, but it’s safe to say that 99% will fall under the new provision,” the spokesman said.

But for some, better days do not seem to be in sight. Rendon does not see “hurdles” or “obstacles” that, with a little effort, he and his children can leap over. Instead, Rendon sees a dark tunnel of unending need. His children are hungry. The family sleeps in motels when they can--and a friend’s tool shed when they cannot. They have no car and no food.

“I didn’t want to come here, but everything is gone and we’ve run out of money,” he said. “I wish those guys from the Legislature would come down here and see this. I wish they would know what it’s like.”


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