200 in County May Lose Rental Aid if Governor's Welfare Reform Is OKd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 200 Ventura County residents who depend on government assistance to help pay their monthly rent would be among the first to lose their benefits under a welfare reform proposal outlined in Gov. Pete Wilson's budget plan released Thursday.

New welfare recipients would also no longer be eligible for aid after one year if they fail to find work under Wilson's plan.

There are now about 30,000 participants in the county's Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

And while the governor's recommended welfare reforms promise to give counties more "flexibility" in managing their own aid programs, and for providing health and child-care assistance, they also propose for the state to set new and stricter eligibility standards.

For this reason, Wilson's proposal drew mostly criticism from county officials, who said the governor is simply wanting to transfer more responsibility for the unemployed to local governments, which do not have the jobs necessary to meet the new demands.

"Where are the jobs going to come from?" asked John K. Flynn, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "That's the big question mark. This is not realistic. There are going to be some people who won't be able to go back to work. Society today has to provide a safety net, period."

In one of the governor's most controversial recommendations, he suggested that local welfare officials encourage young mothers receiving assistance to give up their children for adoption.

"We may have to save the governor from himself," Flynn said. "That's pretty extreme. The thrust in this state has always been for children to stay with their parents. There are already enough severe things in the welfare plan without this."

Supervisor Kathy Long said she could not understand why Wilson wanted even stricter time limits for getting people off welfare than the federal government. Recently approved federal legislation would require new welfare recipients to go back to work within two years, rather than the one-year time limit proposed by Wilson.

"I'm not happy with having an accelerated schedule when the federal legislation has not even been tested yet," Long said.

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Sixteen-year-old Oxnard resident Tephanie Murphy, who is three months pregnant with her first child, said she believes that Wilson's one-year time limit is too harsh. She was at the local welfare office Thursday to apply for government assistance.

"It's going to make everything worse," said Murphy, who lives with her grandmother. "One year is not enough to find a job, especially for someone like me. I can't raise a baby, go to school and have a job all at the same time."

Simi Valley resident Jose Ramos, who has been unemployed since October, said he also believes that the governor's program will make it more difficult for people who cannot find work. The out-of-work house painter said his daughter and pregnant wife rely on the $500 a month the family receives in welfare payments.

"Right now, everyone says it's slow," Ramos said. "Simi Valley is a small city, and it's hard to get a job."

About 200 county residents who receive general relief assistance would be the first to feel the impacts of Wilson's plan, which, if approved by the Legislature, would take effect Jan. 1, 1998.

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The governor's budget proposal calls for legislation that would allow counties to reduce or eliminate their self-funded general relief programs, which serve as a final safety net for poor adults who do not qualify for other welfare grants.

County residents receive general relief in the form of vouchers for rental payments and other necessities. The maximum benefit is $295 a month per household, with the county spending about $730,000 a year on the assistance program.

"The bottom line is that people in need are not going to go away," said Helen Reburn, deputy director of the county's Public Social Services Agency. "One way or the other, they are going to be the responsibility of counties and cities, if not in the form of general relief, then in increased homelessness, crime and jail populations."

Supervisor Frank Schillo took a different view of the governor's proposal, however. He said it could actually help the county avoid a potentially massive financial burden that would be placed on it by new federal welfare reform legislation.

That legislation, which is still subject to revision, would deny Supplemental Security Income, food stamps and other federal benefits to most legal immigrants until they become citizens. This means that these federal welfare recipients would likely turn to the counties for help as a last resort.

Currently, there are 9,236 legal immigrants in Ventura County receiving Supplemental Security Income. The cost of the county providing general relief assistance to that many people is estimated at about $30 million a year.

"So I would be leaning toward saying that the governor's plan is a good thing," Schillo said. He noted that the governor's proposal also calls for providing to counties more than $100 million in additional funding for job training and education for welfare recipients. Exactly how much Ventura County would receive is uncertain, however.

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But attorney Carmen Ramirez of Channel Islands Legal Services, which provides help to the poor, said the county would still be left to deal with those people who are going to have trouble making ends meet.

"There are people who are going to suffer," she said. "There are going to be social prices to pay for this. We're not off the hook now just because the governor says we are. It's not going to be that easy."

Both Reburn and Flynn said they believe that Wilson's plan will not be approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. And even if it is authorized, they said they expect that it will be challenged in court by advocacy groups for the poor.

"I think the governor's in for a big fight," Flynn said. "I don't think this is going to pass the Legislature."

Meanwhile, Flynn said he and Schillo are planning to meet with state Health and Welfare Secretary Sandra Smoley on Jan. 18 in Sacramento to discuss how the county might be able to get more control of its welfare system.

Ventura County aggressively sought to get its own welfare reform bill approved last year, one that would have given it more say over how it parcels out assistance and manages social programs. Although the county's bill received unanimous support from the Legislature, it was ultimately rejected by Wilson.

Times correspondents David R. Baker and Coll Metcalfe contributed to this story.

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