Locked in low-wage, dead-end jobs and socially segregated by limited English skills, working-class Vietnamese Americans in the state's welfare-to-work program are burning through their benefits much faster than other recipients, according to policy analysts, social workers and activists.
The effects have been most pronounced in Orange County's Little Saigon and in Santa Clara County, two of the nation's largest Vietnamese American communities, where thousands of immigrant working poor hold jobs that don't pay enough for them to keep up with California's cost of living.
In Orange County, about 80% of adults enrolled in the CalWorks program who had exhausted their benefits by September were Vietnamese, although they make up about 5% of the population, officials said.
Most were two-parent families with several children and a single low-wage earner. And tellingly, most did not take advantage of CalWorks training and life-skills programs designed to augment the cash assistance, officials said.
Los Angeles County, where Vietnamese Americans make up only 1% of the population, also reported that a disproportionately high number of those timing out were Vietnamese Americans -- about 12%, said Henry Felder, chief of research evaluation and quality assurance for the county Department of Public Social Services.
Contrary to public perceptions of welfare cheats scamming a free ride, those timed out of the system played by the rules, said Duc Nguyen, a director of Hope Community of Santa Ana.
"People think that people on welfare are lazy," said Nguyen, whose agency helps Vietnamese clients find social programs. "That's not the case. A lot of them are just so helpless. They don't have what it takes to find a [better] job."
California's Vietnamese community includes two economically disparate groups. At the end of the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of educated and wealthy Vietnamese escaped the Communist regime and set up profitable expatriate communities in the U.S. -- particular in Westminster.
A second wave of poor and relatively uneducated immigrants began to arrive in the late 1970s and 1980s, seeking a better economic future. Most of the working poor are among this group.
Statewide, about 15,800 recipients ran out of benefits in January, and about 3,000 recipients have been dropped from the rolls each month since, said Andrew Roth, spokesman for the state Department of Social Services.
Losing eligibility means a sharp drop in income for families -- even those with children still receiving benefits -- who can least afford it. Some have lost as much as $300 a month -- a large sum for families living on a small budget -- and are forced to take on a second or third job, social workers said.
"There's an overall feeling of anxiety and worry about their future," Nguyen said. "Right now, we just don't know what to do to help them."
The welfare time limits began in 1998 when California responded to federal welfare reforms by establishing the CalWorks program. It requires able adults who receive cash grants to work to maintain their eligibility, and limits recipients to five years of benefits over their lifetime.
The intent was to end long-term welfare support for individuals and reconfigure the system to act as a bridge, helping people in need to rebuild their lives. As part of that, CalWorks established job-training and life-skills programs. Time limits were waived for the elderly, people with disabilities, children and victims of domestic abuse.
For many families who've run out of benefits, being trapped in poverty is a point of humiliation; many who have lost their benefits declined to describe their predicament.
"Part of it is embarrassment," said Peter Daniels, program coordinator for the Employment Services division of Catholic Charities of Orange County. "It's not a real proud thing for them to be discussing their problems."
One former recipient whose benefits ended at the beginning of the year said she has struggled to break free of poverty. Now she is resigned to it -- but hoping to position her children for a better life.
"I'm stuck and it's frustrating," said Thao Nguyen, 35, of Westminster, a unemployed single mother of three children, ages 10, 9 and 5. "I don't know what my future will be. I can't afford to leave my children and work and I don't have the skills I need to make a better living."
Nguyen, whose mother was Vietnamese and whose absent father was an U.S. soldier, was raised in poverty in Vietnam and never attended school. Scorned in Vietnam for being of mixed race, she left in 1991 under a program allowing Vietnamese children of American soldiers to enter the United States.
Nguyen married after immigrating, but her husband -- and the father of her three children -- left her about five years ago, she said. They are in the process of divorcing, she said.
While in CalWorks, Nguyen received up to $300 a month in cash plus child-care benefits that freed her up to work. She made $6.75 an hour packaging, sealing and labeling cookies at a small Westminster bakery, but lost the job in May 2002 after staying home for a month to care for her 5-year-old daughter, whose leg was broken when she was hit by a car.
Nguyen and her children live in a publicly funded two-bedroom apartment in a working-class neighborhood across the San Diego Freeway from the Westminster Mall. They survive on food stamps and $400 a month in state benefits for the children, for which they are eligible until they turn 18 or graduate high school -- unless the mother's financial fortunes turn around.
"I just can't buy anything and I have to be real frugal," Nguyen said, adding that she devotes her time to raising her children and making sure they keep up with school work "so they don't become like me."
With no job skills, illiterate in Vietnamese and unable to understand English, Nguyen relies on her 10-year-old to navigate the daily world.
"I have three children and no money for baby-sitting. I don't know English and I've never had an education," Nguyen said. "I was hoping to get help when I really need it most, but I was cut off from it instead."
About 92% of all recipients losing benefits this year had jobs, while the rest had either recently lost their jobs or were satisfying the work requirements through community service, according to Orange County Department of Social Services statistics.
"A high percentage are intact families with two parents, larger families [in which] the mother stays at home with the children," said Pamela Boozan, who directs the Orange County CalWorks program. Most speak only Vietnamese and work in jobs without room for career advancement, such as in garment factories.
"They tend to stay in the same job for a long period of time," Boozan said. "Low wages combined with larger families, they tend to stay on aid longer and now are timing out."
In Santa Clara County, 1,085 Vietnamese adults timed out through September, about two-thirds of the 1,625 who exhausted their benefits. Vietnamese make up about 6% of the county's overall population.
"These are long-term welfare recipients who have been working away trying to provide for their families, but due to inadequate language skills they are not climbing up that ladder of success," said Alette Lundeberg, who manages the CalWorks and refugee programs for Santa Clara County.
The lack of participation in CalWorks training programs consequently caused a greater impact on Vietnamese recipients. "In a sense they were telling case managers, 'Don't bother me, don't tell me about career changes or getting training,' "said Catholic Charities' Daniels. "And they didn't believe the five years would be implemented in the end. So after five years, they were the first to go off."
Cultural issues also came into play. Among Vietnamese immigrants -- like many ethnic groups before them -- adults concentrate on working while seeing the future as the province of their children; this can mean missing out on training opportunities that could improve their incomes.
"You find not only among the Vietnamese but also in other immigrant groups with big work ethics, the priority is family -- everybody gets a job and there's nothing too humble for you to do," Lundeberg said. "The work and the income is the No. 1 thing."
Training programs also failed to attract participants because many immigrants who lived under Vietnam's communist regime remain skeptical of government officials. Combined with ineffective outreach about the support programs, Daniels said, Vietnamese families were left behind.
"The worst part is this promise of the CalWorks system that all the training and the assessments ... were never given to them because they didn't really access the services," Daniels said.