Recipients Scramble to Retain Welfare Benefits

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles welfare recipient Aretha Maxey was supposed to be among the 100,000 or so Californians scheduled to lose their cash benefits as the new year starts. Now she hopes to be among the tens of thousands expected to keep welfare checks coming for at least a few months more.

Spurred by vigorous outreach efforts, droves of low-income adults who are facing a five-year welfare limit are receiving exemptions that could extend their aid a few weeks or even several months.

State officials once estimated that as many as 100,000 adult recipients would reach their time limit in January, but now say that the number will be considerably lower. The California Budget Project, an independent group that surveyed several counties, put the number of people who will be cut off in January at fewer than 50,000.

Maxey was among a dozen residents who recently gathered at Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church in Watts for a workshop by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles to help them apply for exemptions. Maxey cited a medical condition that she says stops her from working consistently. Exemptions also are allowed for such reasons as being a victim of domestic abuse or being the caretaker for an ill relative.

If her application is denied, the loss could wipe out a quarter of her family's monthly government income.

"It's upsetting to sit up and think about how I'm going to take care of my kids in the next few months," said the mother of two, who has worked sporadically since the birth of her youngest daughter, during which she suffered a mild stroke.

The clinic was one of the many events organized in California to help prepare recipients for one of the most controversial ingredients of national welfare reform: ending the guaranteed entitlement to cash aid.

Many of those attending still seemed unsure of what it all means to them, organizer Linda Williams said.

"Some are saying they're not worrying about it, but many more seem to be in denial, as if it's a bluff," she said. As checks stop coming this month, she said, "our fear is that we're going to be inundated with people."

A 1996 federal law restructured the nation's safety net for poor families, replacing Aid to Families With Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, adding work requirements and a 60-month lifetime limit on aid.

CalWORKS, California's 1998 welfare-to-work program, also imposed a 60-month limit -- but only for adults. Children will continue to receive state-funded cash assistance as long as the family meets income restrictions.

County officials are attempting to contact all recipients who could be affected and review their cases individually. Officials say the brunt of the state's time limits could fall in late spring or early summer.

In Los Angeles County, officials previously estimated that 11,000 people would hit the time limit in January but now say the number will be fewer than 3,000. In Orange County, about 1,800 will lose aid this month, officials said.

The Los Angeles decline was mainly the result of women who came forward to report domestic abuse, said Margaret Quinn, who manages the cash aid program in Los Angeles County.

"Each month a victim suffered domestic abuse potentially means an extra month of aid," said Quinn, who added that the county will try to verify such claims but mostly will rely on the word of victims. "We will also try to find counseling services for them after the fact. Domestic violence is not the only clock-stopper, but it's one we're extremely sensitive to and we want to bend over backward and take people at their word."

A recipient also qualifies for extended time who is at least 60 years old, is caring for an ill or incapacitated person at home or whose cash benefits have been suspended for a period of time. In addition, exemptions may be granted on the basis of past child support payments from the noncustodial parent.

Most of these cases, though, will only postpone the inevitable, prompting nonprofit community providers and state and county agencies to brace for potentially serious consequences as thousands of adults lose aid.

In most families, the loss will mean about $131 per adult each month -- for a mother and two children, for example, the monthly grant would drop from $679 to $548. But some families with working parents could be more severely affected, according to a recent report by the California Budget Project. In a family of four, with two parents hitting the time limit and monthly earnings of $1,170 ($6.75 per hour), the cash grant would drop from $337 to $76.

The report found that most adults affected by time limits are working -- 91% in Santa Clara County, 65% in Riverside County, 48% in Orange County and 58% in Los Angeles County -- but that most earn too little to become self-sufficient.

State officials note that adults will remain eligible for food stamps, Medi-Cal and two years of subsidized child care.

And some counties will offer affected adults extensive services. Los Angeles County has set aside $15 million to provide job training, mental health and substance abuse counseling, rent assistance, emergency shelter and other help to prevent homelessness.

Lynna Moreno, 32, an unemployed Baldwin Park mother, said losing her $212 portion of the family's grant would make it hard to pay the rent. But, like many others at a recent county-sponsored workshop, she hopes to get an exemption.

She had been enrolled in courses to become a pharmacy technician but was told by her doctor to cease all activity during the difficult birth of daughter Andrea.

"I'm looking for a job, but it's hard to go in and make out applications with a 9-month-old," Moreno said. "Even a little more time would help out a lot."

Most other states enacted welfare reform plans sooner, and some have taken different approaches on how much to help families who are affected by the federal time limit. In some states, the entire family -- adults and children -- loses cash aid. Several other states have chosen to extend some or all of the benefits by paying for them with state rather than federal funds.

In California, many advocates say two-parent, immigrant and refugee families whose efforts to find good jobs are hindered by language barriers will be disproportionately affected by time limits.

In San Francisco County, Cantonese, Cambodian, Tagalog and Vietnamese speakers constitute 70% of the adults expected to be affected, although they represent 22% of the welfare caseload, according to the Budget Project report. In Orange County, Vietnamese speakers make up nearly 66% of those likely to be affected.

"We're really concerned because the time limit is hitting at the same time the state is facing a major deficit," said Dennis Kao, director of the Immigrant Welfare Project for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. "Some families will manage, but the support systems they've always depended on aren't going to be there anymore."

Those fears, advocates say, underscore the importance of helping recipients get their houses in order.

Among the efforts are free legal clinics to help recipients maintain good credit, get suspended driver's licenses reinstated and have criminal records expunged -- all with the view of removing barriers to employment.

Cynthia Colfer, a 45-year-old mother of four, says she has been unable to apply for some jobs and has been denied others because she can't legally drive.

Her license was suspended five years ago after a DUI and despite attending the required driver's class, she's unsure why she has not been able to get it reinstated.

She recently attended a Legal Aid Foundation clinic at a Nickerson Gardens church to try to sort things out.

Such clinics have been attracting turn-away business as the reality of welfare time limits begins to sink in, Williams said.

"Some of these people's fines have climbed to $3,000, $4,000 because they can't pay the initial ticket," Williams said. "Even someplace like McDonald's requires you to have a driver's license. But you can't pay the fine if you're not working."

Going over her case with volunteer Karen Gould, Colfer discovers that she has another problem. She had a dizzy spell and briefly passed out once. The emergency room CAT scan was duly reported to the DMV, and Gould suspects that has been blocking reinstatement of her license.

With proof of insurance, the completion of her driver's class and a doctor's note saying she poses no safety risk, she is told she should be able to get her license with no restrictions.

And it's a good thing. Colfer said her goal is to drive a school bus.

"I was worried about the time limit coming up, but now I'm trying not to let it bother me," she said. "Right now I'm doing my best to find a job."

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