Concerned about growing welfare costs, Los Angeles County officials are considering additional measures to root out fraud and impose tougher sanctions on aid recipients who fail to comply with program rules.
The proposed changes are supposed to ensure that scarce taxpayer dollars go only to those who meet residency and work requirements of the county’s general relief program, which serves as a final safety net for indigent adults who don’t qualify for state and federal aid.
But advocates for the poor contend the crackdown would end up denying help to some of the region’s most destitute residents who are eligible for assistance.
“They are absolutely going to cut the number of people” receiving general relief payments, said Jennifer del Castillo, an attorney with Public Counsel Law Center. “But they are going to do this by putting in place these administrative hurdles that people can’t overcome, rather than eliminate people who shouldn’t have GR.”
The controversy over the proposed measures follows months of internal debate among board aides and top county managers over the reasons for a dramatic increase in the welfare rolls. The county’s monthly general relief caseload surged from an average of 58,599 in 2007 to more than 106,000 over the 12 months ending in June 2011, increasing the program’s costs 85% to $275 million.
Supervisor Don Knabe argues more needs to be done to “shore up program integrity.” He cited a new report by county Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe that estimated $850,000 a year could be saved by identifying applicants who claim to be homeless when they are living outside the county, with relatives or in jail.
“At the end of the day, our intent is not to hurt anyone,” Knabe said. “Our intent is to have the resources available for those that are truly in need.” Other board members contend estimates of fraud and abuse are exaggerated.
“The fact of the matter is that the general relief population grew over the last few years because the economy tanked,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He noted Watanabe’s report estimated just 1% of 12,652 aid applications reviewed under a new fraud detection pilot program involved false claims about being homeless. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas likened the anti-fraud proposals to “a solution without a problem.”
But Watanabe said the fraud rate could increase as more cases are investigated.
She has urged the board to consider hiring more staff to verify applicants’ addresses and conduct analyses that can help identify those likely to commit fraud. But the cost of the added oversight could outweigh potential savings, critics say.
County officials and community advocates have been meeting since November to consider 11 other options offered by county Chief Executive William T Fujioka and the Department of Public Social Services.
Among other things, the group has endorsed a proposal to stop reducing aid to recipients who share housing. The change would cost the county an additional $5.2 million annually but would eliminate a reason for recipients to lie about their living arrangements. It might also encourage some to reduce expenses by sharing rooms, potentially increasing their financial self-sufficiency, the group concluded.
Several options were rejected, including replacing cash grants with housing aid for recipients who go extended periods without looking for work or trying to get federal disability benefits. But the county work group deadlocked on imposing more stringent residency verification requirements and tougher penalties for program violations. As board members consider the group’s recommendations in the coming weeks, advocates for the homeless, who make up about 60% of the caseload, are warning of potential pitfalls.
William Miller, a 26-year-old who sleeps on a corner in downtown Los Angeles, said he didn’t realize he had broken a rule until he tried to use his benefits card in April and found no money in his account. He suspected it was because he hadn’t submitted job search forms. They got soaked in the rain, he said.
A notice of a hearing on his benefits was sent to his welfare office in Rancho Park, but he hadn’t been there in a while. “I tend to forget easily about things like that,” he said.
Miller could reapply for aid but was told it might take weeks to reinstate his benefits. “My clothes haven’t been washed” for two months, he said, looking down at a grimy T-shirt and camouflage pants.
Under the new proposal, he would have to wait 30 days to reapply, with the delay increasing to 60 and 90 days, respectively, for second and third violations.
Welfare officials also want some recipients to provide quarterly verification that they resided in the county for the previous 15 days. The requirement would not apply to those pursuing employment or federal benefits, or those with mental illnesses recognized by the county.
But street dweller Mark Anthony Debartolo, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child, told legal advocates that no one asked about his mental health when he applied for general relief last year. He said he has lived in Los Angeles for most of his 49 years but doesn’t know how to prove it. He sleeps next to an abandoned building in Hollywood and avoids shelters after being robbed at one.
Advocates for the homeless note that Watanabe’s study identified just eight instances in which applicants were allegedly out-of-county residents. They argue that the county should focus on getting people like Debartolo off general relief and onto federal disability assistance, which provides more aid.
A newly instituted program to do just that, approved at Knabe’s request, appears to be yielding results. In the first year ending in June 2011, 8,380 people came off general relief and began receiving federal Supplemental Security Income, 25% more than the previous year. That has contributed to a steady decline in the general relief caseload since it peaked at 113,334 in August.