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Cuts in government aid hit hard in Tulare County

The vast fruit fields, picturesque farmhouses and rolling foothills of Tulare County mask an ugly reality: Nearly a quarter of the population in this Central Valley agricultural hub lives in poverty, and one in three residents receives state aid — the largest proportion in California.

With the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown slashing billions of dollars in government services to help balance the state budget, few places will feel the effects more deeply. Local officials fear that when roughly $8 billion in budget cuts take effect, some as early as July 1, the poorest residents will tumble into homelessness.

For Patricia Dickerson, a mother of five who has been unable to find work since losing her job two years ago, the coming $60 reduction in her monthly welfare payments may mean a shutoff of her electricity.

Last week, she clutched a Nora Roberts romance novel while waiting in a long line at a county welfare office. At home, a stack of letters from the state has gone unread. "My fantasy," she said, holding up the book. "I don't like to read bad news right now."

Brown, a Democrat, hit the road Friday as part of a campaign to promote billions of dollars in taxes as a way to avoid even steeper reductions — though Californians rejected the tax measures on last year's statewide ballot.

"We either cut, slash and burn, or we find the money," the governor told a group of teachers in Riverside.

But he faces stiff opposition in even the most economically battered areas. In Tulare County, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a solidly Republican electorate supported his gubernatorial rival, Meg Whitman, and reelected Assemblywoman Connie Conway.

The leader of the Assembly's minority Republicans, Conway has refused to negotiate with Brown and opposes any tax extensions or increases, instead leading the charge to close what remains of the budget deficit with more cuts.

"I don't think Californians are uncaring people," Conway said. "I think they are right to go to the government and ask, 'Are you making the best use of the tax dollars I'm paying you?' It's a very fair question."

Although "nobody wants Grandma in a wheelchair out in the middle of the road with no help," she said fraud and abuse plague the government's social services — "giveaway" programs, in her words — and should be run more efficiently.

Local leaders say they are already struggling to meet the demand for social services, public safety and higher education after years of cutbacks in rural communities plagued with chronic unemployment. Much of the work here — harvesting oranges, packing boxes — is seasonal and low-wage. Among the largest private employers is Wal-Mart.

Sitting in his office last week, Jean Rousseau, the county's administrative officer, described the layoffs, salary freezes and fiscal maneuvering that have kept government here running. "We've pulled out all the tricks in the last two years in hopes that things would turn around," he said. "I don't think we've hit bottom yet."

For instance, without the revenue from some of the taxes Brown wants, Rousseau said, the county would be forced to cut 87 public safety positions across three departments, including 48 correctional officers and 7 probation officers. "We're afraid to sit down and talk about what that would mean," he said.

At the local College of the Sequoias, administrators are straining to offer classes for the school's 13,000 students and turning away thousands more.

To offset $400 million in reductions to the state's community college system, the campus has cut 10% of its classes and is giving admission preference to those who are closest to finishing degrees. That keeps out new high school graduates and the unemployed seeking job training.

The college has little choice, according to officials. Its enrollment has jumped 23% in the last three years, with no additional funding from the state, President Bill Scroggins said.

Across town, health and human services officials are coming to terms with their share of the $8 billion in cuts. Having already eliminated prevention programs, such as those aimed at teenage pregnancy, they now anticipate reductions to other programs when demand is at an all-time high. Applications for food stamps in the county, for example, have soared 60% since the start of the recession in 2008.

Now, recipients of CalWorks, the state's main welfare program, will see an 8% cut in monthly assistance. Those on Medi-Cal, which provides the poor with healthcare, will have to pay more for physician visits and medicines, and doctor visits will be limited to seven times a year.

Sitting in a welfare office that once housed a supermarket, Rafaela Pena, 41, said she and her family were struggling to make ends meet on $600 a month and food stamps.

Three years ago, she and her husband, Francisco, owned a home, a rental property and a used-car dealership. But when the real estate boom crumbled they couldn't make their mortgage payments and lost it all in foreclosures and short sales.

The couple lives with their three children in a rented house. She works as a part-time prep cook at an Italian restaurant and, with government help, attends College of the Sequoias. Her fall from the middle class still stings.

The first time Pena used her state-issued aid card to buy groceries, she drove 40 miles north to Fresno so no one would recognize her. "I was embarrassed," she said, looking at the floor.

Dickerson, 41, was in similar economic straits after losing her job as manager of a party-rental store. Last week, she blinked back tears while taking her 22-year-old son, Gregory, to apply for food stamps. Unable to find work, he plans to move into the garage of the small one-story, three-bedroom house Dickerson rents with her husband, Mark, and their three daughters.

"We never thought it would get this bad," she said. "The recession hit and you just can't get back up."

In her living room one afternoon, she ticked off a list of unpaid bills as her husband turned off an overhead light. "Bills," she said to her 15-year-old daughter, Koreena, pointing at the lamp. "You'll learn about them soon enough."

She said she was $800 behind on the electric bill and had avoided a shutoff by making partial payments. Mark Dickerson's job as a supervisor at a local arcade and amusement park pays minimum wage and covers the rent.

Welfare payments and food stamps barely buy enough to feed the family of five. They can't afford local produce, grown in fields a few miles from their front door.

Dickerson has interviewed for jobs but says she's been turned down because she doesn't speak Spanish. For a while, she sold second-hand items — even the family's furniture — at swap meets, yard sales and on Craigslist to make money. But that has dried up. More than a dozen crates of toys, collectible tins and trinkets gather dust in the backyard under a green tarp.

The latest budget cuts have the Dickersons fretting about their children's future.

"Education is what gives you a good job," Mark Dickerson said, "but if you can't get the education, how do you get the job?"

michael.mishak@latimes.com

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