Four of the five members of Los Angeles County's Board of Supervisors said Thursday that they would vote to continue to provide some level of cash assistance to indigent adults even if they are given the option of dismantling the decades-old General Relief program, as Gov. Pete Wilson proposed this week.
Elsewhere in Southern California, local lawmakers--who long have complained about the burdens placed on counties by the state mandate that they aid the poor--also were slow to embrace the governor's plan.
Many predicted that counties would face dire public health and safety threats if they eliminated their role as the safety net of last resort. Even worse, several said, would be the patchwork system of public aid that would result if some counties chose to continue providing support while others chose not to.
"The need and the people will still be there if we eliminate GR," Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a member of the board's 3-2 Democratic majority, said Thursday. "These are people with nowhere else to turn. It is a very important stopgap for people who are out of work and without unemployment insurance."
Bob Buster, chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, agreed.
"I think [Wilson's] proposal is completely unrealistic," Buster said. "To completely eliminate the only safety net between a lot of folks and the street, further punishing the poor for economic and political reasons, is an absolutely wrong course of action."
Los Angeles County's position on the welfare proposals is important because it is by far the state's largest county and is home to 90,000 General Relief recipients--more than half of the 156,000 recipients in the state. County officials have repeatedly sought to no longer function as welfare providers and have trimmed monthly grants and ordered able-bodied recipients into public work programs.
But they also have argued that the state should assume responsibility for General Relief.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky called Wilson's proposal "counterproductive and unrealistic political rhetoric." But he said it probably would generate a long-awaited dialogue between state and county officials on how to resolve the issue.
"He's right in saying that the counties should not shoulder the burden" of providing General Assistance, Yaroslavsky said. "But it is a mistake to believe that the problems of poverty and indigence in our community will disappear just because of a change in the state code."
Yaroslavsky was joined by the board's newest member, conservative Don Knabe. "I don't think the votes are there . . . to just cut it to zero tomorrow," Knabe said.
Supervisor Gloria Molina agreed that grants should continue to be provided for the most needy residents but worried that the county might confront a flood of poor and unemployed newcomers if other counties chose to eliminate relief.
"If you have some sympathetic counties, they will become magnets for people," Molina said.
A solution, she added, would be for the state to either take control of the whole program or establish a uniform set of guidelines for all counties.
Mike Antonovich, a staunch conservative and Wilson ally, was the only county supervisor who said he would support eliminating the county program and shifting the entire burden to the state. Antonovich said such a move would eliminate a Catch-22 that now exists, in that the state has demanded that counties pay for General Assistance but has taken away tens of millions of dollars needed to pay for it.
Antonovich predicted that other supervisors in Los Angeles County and elsewhere would vote to eliminate General Assistance if and when there is a vote.
"When it comes down to putting a sheriff's deputy in the street to protect the public or putting money into a welfare system," he said, "the public will demand that local governments do what they are elected to, and that's protect the public safety."
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner praised Wilson's efforts to cut welfare dependency. But he said that slashing or eliminating General Relief is a "simplistic" approach that would cause deeper social problems.
"I don't think we can abdicate our responsibility for being the provider of last resort for our poorest citizens," Steiner said. "I could not feel comfortable about children sleeping in doorways."
But some San Diego lawmakers hailed Wilson's proposal and predicted immediate cuts in General Relief if it is adopted by the Legislature.
"I think it's fantastic. We've been asking for this for four years," said Board of Supervisor Chairman Bill Horn. "I'm overjoyed. Finally they may realize that counties just don't have the money."
Margaret Pena, the health and welfare lobbyist for the California Assn. of Counties, the main lobbying group for county lawmakers, said Wilson's proposal has set the stage for a protracted debate in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
"The governor's plan is only one plan," Pena said. "We are going to see several plans from other legislators, different advocacy groups, and we'll probably have our own. There will be a lot of compromising that goes on in order to reach a final agreement."
Those who depend on the aid said Wilson's proposal seemed like a slap aimed at the most vulnerable and least politically protected poor.
"It seems like they feel they can do anything they want to us," said homeless diabetic Vernon Lee Duncan, 31, as he stood in line at a downtown Los Angeles welfare office with about 50 others waiting to apply for relief.
Advocates for the poor said that eliminating cash assistance to the indigent would cost counties and the state far more in the long run in health, law enforcement and housing costs than any immediate savings gained by cutting General Relief.
General Relief grants in Los Angeles have been cut more than 40% since 1991, when they peaked at $341 monthly. In March 1996, the grant was reduced to $212 from $285. Los Angeles County's current General Relief budget is $206 million, down from $240 million last year.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness, said virtually all General Relief recipients who are not in some way disabled or mentally incapacitated, now must work to receive a grant.
"And a lot of people don't realize this, but 38% of GR recipients are women and the second-largest group of people on GR are women over 55," he said.
General Relief recipients say the cash grants fill a vital need.
Frances Herrera, 38, who is unemployed, has been living with a friend since her 20-year marriage broke up.
"After 20 years, I thought I'd still be married," she said, standing in line waiting to apply for GR. "It just shows how things can dissolve for people. I've read a lot about them cutting this and cutting that, and it's not fair. I have worked in my life, and I'm like a lot of other people here who believe that if I've paid taxes, I deserve some help."
Times staff writers Carla Hall, Tom Gorman in Riverside County, Shelby Grad and Lisa Richardson in Orange County, Carlos Lozano in Ventura County and Tony Perry in San Diego County contributed to this story.
* ADOPTION: Call for welfare recipients to give up children is assailed. A3
* EDUCATION: Some worry that 4% increase won't go very far. A3