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Tet Business Drops Amid Fears of Cuts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Huynh Van Sang is spending this Tet hawking his stamp collection, a personal memento the 80-year-old man has kept close for 60 years.

“I’ve had it for most of my life. It’s just about the only thing of value that I own,” said Sang, scurrying near the fast-food shops in the Asian Garden Mall earlier this week, trying to find a buyer for his somewhat worn collection. He needs the money “just in case” his Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is eventually terminated under the new welfare law, he said.

Vietnamese immigrants usually celebrate Tet, which falls today, by buying gifts and festive foods or traveling back to Vietnam to see family. But this year, the prospect of financial doom under welfare reform has cast a definite pall over the start of the new Year of the Ox in Little Saigon, the hub of Orange County’s Vietnamese community of about 72,000.

Bracing for a financial winter to come, thousands of people are hoarding what cash they have instead of spending it this Tet, which is to Little Saigon businesses what Christmas is to mainstream malls.

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“People are just looking, they’re not buying,” said shopper Trang Tran, 65, of Garden Grove, who also expects a public-benefits cutback. “Like me, they’re afraid that they’ll starve later if they don’t start saving now.”

Sales figures reported by Little Saigon’s shopkeepers mirror such attitudes. Earlier this week, a dozen entrepreneurs interviewed in the shopping area spanning Westminster and Garden Grove said business has dropped anywhere from 15% to 30% this Tet season compared with last year.

“Look around, what’s happening is very, very obvious. When President Clinton signed the welfare reform law last year, people immediately tightened up their spending, and that hasn’t changed since,” said Frank Jao, a developer associated with about half of the commercial properties in Little Saigon.

On Thursday, Clinton submitted a budget proposal that would restore SSI payments and some other benefits for legal immigrants that would have been cut off under the changes passed by Congress last year. If Clinton’s proposals are approved, that restoration would go a long way toward relieving anxiety in the Vietnamese community, which would be particularly stricken by the SSI provision in the welfare law. But the chances of passage by Congress appear uncertain at best.

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The benefits help elderly or disabled poor people who do not qualify for regular Social Security. Many Vietnamese arrived in this country as political refugees after the end of the Vietnam War and were unable to build up enough work credits to qualify for Social Security.

Sang, for example, came to California from Vietnam two years ago, at the age of 78, knowing no English. He had served 30 years in the French and South Vietnamese military, so he had no marketable work skills when he arrived. However, his benefits would not be cut under the new law until he has lived in this country for five years, at which point he is qualified to seek citizenship.

The anticipated benefits cutoffs have created a ripple effect in Little Saigon, going from individuals to businesses.

One of the most heavily hit businesses is the travel industry, with the number of trips to Vietnam plummeting as much as 40%, several travel agents said.

“A large portion of our clientele are people who receive SSI or welfare, since they tend to have stronger ties to the country,” said Long Tran, an agent at Trans Travel in Westminster. “Many of them scrimp and save for years for the chance to be with their families during Tet.

“Right now, because of the welfare reforms, they’re not too worried about going home to Vietnam to celebrate Tet. They’re worried about finding a job.”

Most other businesses in Little Saigon have also been affected to some extent, from supermarkets to furniture stores.

Nancy Mai Vo, owner of a clothing boutique in Little Saigon, said business has dropped 20% to 30% compared with last Tet.

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“I haven’t purchased a lot of new merchandise for the boutique. I can’t afford to,” Vo said. “Mostly, I’m just trying to sell what’s in stock.”

So she herself is spending less this year, buying “cheaper” flowers and fruits, and absolutely no new jewelry, she said.

Although the immediate impact of the law has left many frustrated, confused and “plain scared” of the future, a new-year optimism still permeates the air, said Yen Do, publisher of Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the United States.

“As a result of this movement, more people will become self-sufficient. More will speak English and perhaps pay a little more attention to what’s going on in the world. All of those things are good,” Do said. “They may or may not do those things otherwise, but this way, we are going to go through a period of intensive acculturation.”

Indeed, in what has been referred to by social workers in Little Saigon as “a mass panic,” many noncitizens have enrolled in citizenship classes, prompting one area social service agency to expand from two to five weekly sessions within the past year. Citizenship would allow recipients to retain their benefits. English classes have also experienced a boost in numbers, partly in preparation for citizenship tests, partly because more people want the language skills that might help them land a job, social workers said.

Sitting inside the acrid motel room he shares with his wife, on a couch that had been donated by a local church, Le Van Nghiem, 74, took out a stack of typed questions that he is supposed to study for the citizenship exam.

“I know how to say ‘July Fourth’ and how to tell somebody what my name is in English,” Nghiem said in Vietnamese. But before he could repeat the phrases in English, he put his right hand across his forehead in concentration.

“Oh wait, I just said it not long ago, and I’ve already forgotten.”

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Like Nghiem, many Vietnamese immigrants 65 or older feel particularly threatened by the new law because they fear that they are too weak to work and too old to learn English to pass their citizenship exam, said Wanda Waldman, district manager for the Social Security Administration.

“Unless the law changes, there really aren’t any options for most of them but to pass that citizenship exam,” Waldman said. “A small portion will rely on family members, and others will have to go to the county or state agencies or charities. Then there’s going to be a group with no one to turn to. SSI is all they have.”

The 1990 census shows that only about 3% of the total population in Orange County is Vietnamese, yet it accounts for 32% of the noncitizens receiving SSI in the area, according to the Social Security Administration. To qualify for SSI, recipients must be 65 or older, or disabled, and poor.

Vietnamese families also account for 20% of the Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients in Orange County, and thousands more depend on food stamps, Refugee Cash Assistance, a program that assists refugees without children in their first eight months in the United States, and General Relief.

On Sunday, a group of governors, including California’s Pete Wilson, met in Washington and drafted a resolution asking Congress to restore some of the targeted benefits to legal immigrants.

Newspaper editor Do also sees opportunities for the private sector to help out, especially among charities and professionals such as engineers and computer operators, who can help train new workers. Several projects are in the planning stage, but organizers said it’s too soon to go public with them.

“This marks a new era in our community,” Do said. “Prior to this, most of the changes here have been either economic or political. As you know, economic changes come in cycles and we know what to expect. Political changes usually will pass by and we come to accept them.

“What we’re experiencing now is a social change, which in my opinion is the weightiest and most difficult change to deal with because it affects the structure of our community and the behavior of the people involved.”

At the Vietnamese Community of Orange County earlier this week, a group of 15 elders gathered to learn English. As they were waiting for a substitute teacher, talk turned to the hottest topic for the moment--welfare reform.

They talked about the hardships of learning a new language when they could hardly remember their own address. They remembered the years of toiling at a job in Vietnam and saving money for retirement there, only to flee their motherland with nothing.

“Now, we have to stand in line with downcast eyes to ask for what the public perceives as handouts,” said Hoang Tu Quy, 74, of Westminster. “We are very saddened by that.”

Then the conversation turned back to the reason they came to the United States in the first place--to escape communism, many said.

“I know that no matter what happens, I feel like we, as a community, have been through worse during the war,” said Phong Tran, 67, of Santa Ana. “That gives me some hope. I know the next Tet will be better, and the one after that even better.”


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