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Time Is Running Out for Thousands on Welfare

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 110,000 welfare recipients--roughly half from Los Angeles County--will lose money and other government aid next January when California’s welfare-to-work program begins to cut benefits to poor families that reach a five-year lifetime limit on assistance.

Like other welfare reform efforts across the country, the CalWORKS program seeks to move as many people as possible off state welfare rolls and into the world of work. It has been more successful than many anticipated, thanks in part to a strong economy for much of the time that allowed welfare recipients to find work and leave welfare.

As a result, fewer welfare recipients are expected to hit the lifetime limit than many initially feared. Under federal law, the limit takes effect automatically for most welfare recipients when they receive aid for 60 months. Because CalWORKS was not implemented until 1998, California welfare recipients will not start hitting the limit until 2003.

Nonetheless, the long-term consequences of time limits in the nation’s most populous state are expected to be significant, and thus are being closely watched as an indicator of the challenges still facing welfare reform nationwide.

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Several other states already have extended some or all of the benefits that welfare recipients were to lose when the limits took effect by paying for them with state funds instead of federal dollars. And some California legislators, concerned about the personal and economic impacts of the limits, are introducing similar bills intended to soften the blow.

Although they will lose only the adult’s portion of their family grants, more families are expected to be affected by welfare time limits in California than anywhere else in the nation. And like those in other states, most California parents expected to hit the limits share a common characteristic--they have found at least some work, but their jobs pay too little to support their families.

More than half of the adults expected to lose assistance in January are already employed, but still would fall near or below the federal poverty line without government assistance. The average single-parent family on welfare is expected to lose about $130 a month.

For many, that represents roughly a fourth of their household government income.

“The jobs that people are getting just don’t allow them to leave aid. They are not making enough to become independent,” said Casey McKeever of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “That was an inherent problem with CalWORKS. There was not an effort to make sure these people would get jobs that allowed them to meet basic needs.”

The state Department of Social Services is combing the welfare rolls to determine how many people will be affected by the time limits. It recently estimated that 114,000 adult welfare recipients from 94,000 households--roughly 18% of the CalWORKS population--will reach the lifetime limit at the start of next year.

An average of 1,300 families will then hit the limit every month thereafter and will see their benefits cut as they do. Most live in Los Angeles County, which alone has a larger welfare caseload than 48 of the 50 states. In Orange County, officials estimate that roughly 3,000 welfare recipients will lose aid at the start of next year. In Ventura County, the early estimate is 775.

The state’s preliminary analysis points to other problems that will make further reducing welfare rolls difficult. Notably, it found that many of those who have not found work or are working but still need assistance are immigrants who do not speak English. Statewide, 35% of the adult recipients who are expected to hit the limits do not speak English as their primary language. In Alameda County, 64% primarily spoke a language other than English.

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The effects of such losses will likely be drawn out over time, some experts say, starting with such red flags as occasionally missing rent and utility payments. But others predict more immediate--and severe--social and economic consequences.

“Those families are going to become homeless,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness. “They are using the cash grant for rent, because rents are so high. They are using that cash grant to live. I would challenge anyone, starting with the governor, to explain how this is not going to result in increased homelessness.”

Single Mother of Four Struggles to Survive

The cut in benefits will prove particularly difficult for recipients such as Charlenta Howard, a 38-year-old single mother of four from South-Central Los Angeles.

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Howard, who said she “never worked a day in my life” until 1999, tried but was unable to maintain a $7-an-hour job as a dispatcher with a security guard company because her two oldest children began getting into trouble and giving in to the temptations of gang life.

The two children, who became too old to qualify for state subsidized child care when they entered their teens, are now both in juvenile detention facilities.

Howard has struggled to find a place to live with her other two children, ages 6 and 11. She has no idea how she will pay her $495 monthly rent and other bills when she loses the adult portion of her $635 family welfare aid.

“I try not to think about what I am going to do,” she said, “because it is all . . . necessary when it comes to taking care of my children. When you don’t know [how you will] pay the bills, you don’t know what you might do.”

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California has created a so-called safety net to diminish the impact of the benefits cutoff. Thus, some experts say, recipients here will be better protected than those in other states. Though adults will be removed from the rolls, for example, their children will remain eligible for aid. Also, parents losing cash aid as a result of being forced out of the welfare system will be able to receive child-care services for two years. Furthermore, state officials point out that although many welfare recipients remain in poverty despite having found work, data suggest they are now on the right path thanks to welfare reform.

“That job experience, even if you are not making above poverty [wages], is putting you on the road” to financial independence, said Genie Chough, an assistant secretary with the state’s Health and Human Services Agency.

The results of California’s experience with welfare reform are being closely watched by welfare experts around the country--not only because of the state’s size, but also because its remarkable racial and ethnic diversity and mix of urban, suburban and rural communities make it a unique laboratory for welfare policy.

All states were required to implement time limits on assistance as part of the federal government’s welfare reforms under President Clinton in 1996. At least 50% of all welfare recipients also were supposed to participate in some form of work or work-related activity. But many states have found that although recipients find employment as a result of government training programs and education, the work is often unreliable or menial.

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In response, a growing number of states, including Illinois and Washington, have either “stopped the clock” on time limits or extended benefits to families that “played by the rules” by undergoing training and finding jobs, said Shawn Fremstad, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

“What you have are families who are pretty close to the edge anyway--80% to 90% are below the poverty line--and there is no longer the ability to go back on welfare” without an extension of benefits, Fremstad said. “Those grants are really kind of subsidizing them on these low-wage jobs, but yet their clock is ticking.”

Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), a leading advocate of enhancing welfare benefits in California, has introduced legislation that would stop time from being counted against state welfare recipients who are meeting work requirements. Her bill, AB 2116, also would provide exemptions for programs the state vowed to fund at a certain level but has since cut or may soon eliminate. Child-care and transportation programs, for instance, could be restored or protected. Aroner’s bill also would exempt recipients in entire regions where unemployment rates are 10% or more, making job prospects for welfare recipients hard to come by.

Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek) is pushing a measure that would extend an existing two-year limit on educational opportunities to let welfare recipients continue their schooling. And Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) has introduced legislation to extend that same education limit for welfare recipients studying to become nurses, citing the state’s shortage of skilled nurses.

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In both cases, those bills would allow welfare recipients to continue drawing aid while pursing their schooling. The states’ efforts to deal with the effects of the limits come at a time when the Bush administration is trying to remake the nation’s welfare policy to put more emphasis on work. It has proposed increasing the number of hours welfare recipients must work from 30 to 40 hours per week, and raising the percentage of welfare recipients who must be involved in work-related activities from 50% to 70% by 2007. States that do not meet the requirements could lose federal money.

Welfare Agencies Face New Challenge

With time ticking for thousands of welfare recipients, the already swamped county agencies that administer most welfare programs now face a new challenge: They must inform scores of people that their aid is coming to an end, and try to ensure that they receive all the services they can before their time expires.

A recent state survey, to which 51 of the state’s 56 counties responded, found that most counties were working to alert recipients that their benefits were going to end. Forty counties were performing case-file reviews and computer runs to determine who will soon reach time limits. Thirty counties were providing ongoing notices and telephone calls to recipients to alert them that their time was coming to a close, and 28 counties were making home visits.

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In Los Angeles County, officials have compiled an initial list of 49,000 families and 58,000 individual welfare recipients who are at risk of exhausting their lifetime limit on assistance in January.

The numbers are a “maximum worst-case situation” and should be “substantially lower” after county officials interview welfare recipients and grant them extra time for months when they did not use up eligibility, said Eileen Kelly, the chief of the county’s welfare-to-work operation.

Of the Los Angeles families, 44% were earning some sort of income in December, and the average age of the adults was 39. Those whose primary language was not English appeared more likely to hit the time limit, especially if their native tongue was Cambodian, Chinese or Vietnamese, officials concluded.

County officials are distributing lists to case managers of all the welfare participants in their caseload who are likely to hit the limits. The case managers are expected to invite them to a voluntary workshop to discuss their situations. The county also is developing a series of outreach materials such as videos and brochures to educate welfare recipients on the services still available to them.

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Having to disseminate the information in 28 languages is a monumental task, Kelly said. But the county is taking seriously its responsibility to ensure that welfare recipients know that the end of aid is fast approaching. “We certainly are doing everything we can so that no one will be shocked,” she said. “That would be unconscionable.”


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