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.
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner praised Wilson's efforts to cut welfare dependency but said 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."
Steiner said the elimination of general relief would likely increase homelessness and other social ills and create a "backlash" from others in the community.
"Even conservative residents who believe that people ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps don't feel comfortable about elderly people pushing around shopping carts and kids sleeping in parks."
He also said that court challenges might make the issue moot.
"It's unlikely that we would be given that discretion," he added. "I think the courts would prevent that."
Other Orange County supervisors were just receiving the governor's welfare plan Thursday evening, and a few declined to comment on the proposed changes until they reviewed the materials.
Many officials throughout the region 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 did not.
"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 L.A. 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 aid but has taken away tens of millions of dollars needed to pay for it.
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.
Some authorities 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.
Angelo Doti, director of financial assistance for the Orange County Social Services Agency, said discussion about the possible elimination of General Relief is premature. But he warned that eliminating the program would mean more than allowing the county to keep the $6.5 million it spends for about 3,000 people each year.
In some ways, ending General Relief could cost counties more money than the actual program, he said.
"General Relief is a very simplistically worded program, but it deals with a lot of other things than direct cash assistance," Doti said.
He said the program pays for the burial of indigent people, covers some health care costs and even transports poor people out of Orange County to other counties and states where they have homes waiting for them.
"If you didn't have a General Relief program to [bury the poor] what would you do with the remains?" he asked. "There are about 2.6 million people here and not everyone has next of kin who will deal with the final arrangements.
"Then there's health care. Do you really want people walking around with communicable diseases? And with the Return to Residence program, when you consider about $240 a month goes to a person receiving benefits, it's typically very cost effective to provide them with a bus ticket."
"If you say, 'Well, shall we just eliminate all of it?' the ramifications need to be given serious consideration."
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.