Facing the threat of a lawsuit, San Diego County supervisors Tuesday nearly doubled the size of the basic welfare grant for single people, the first increase in more than a decade.
The board voted unanimously to increase the payments, known as general relief, to $225 a month from $120--the amount the county has paid since 1975.
But welfare rights representatives, who had vowed to sue the county if the grant amount was not increased, said the new payment for the county's most destitute citizens will still fall far short of what is needed to support a single person, even in poverty.
Gregory Knoll, chief counsel for the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, said county statistics showing that it is possible to buy a month's food and shelter for $225 are "misleading." He said it would take a minimum of $288 to keep a person from having to live on the streets in hunger.
Knoll blasted the county for taking too long to raise the general relief payment, which until Tuesday's action ranked 55th among the state's 58 counties. To qualify for general relief, a person must have property valued at no more than $50 and must agree to enroll in a job training program and seek work.
"We are pleased that they have finally after 10 years decided that $120 is inadequate," Knoll said. "We feel it took too long and we feel they've been on notice . . . and they've done nothing until the threat of a lawsuit to raise that level."
Knoll cited a San Diego Housing Commission study that found a year ago that the average rent for a downtown residential hotel room was $234 a month--$9 more than the county will now be paying for housing and food. And he said a private study commissioned by the Legal Aid Society found that the minimum subsistence level is more than $330 a month.
But Randall Bacon, director of the county's Department of Social Services, said he was confident that general relief recipients could live on as little as $130 a month, even if that meant they had to live part of the time with friends or relatives. Bacon's formula allows $80 monthly for food and $15 for personal needs, for a total of $225.
David Janssen, the county's acting chief administrative officer, told the board that the $120-a-month payment was clearly "out of compliance" with state laws requiring the county to provide a minimum level of assistance for indigents who do not qualify for aid under other programs. The increase still leaves the county with one of the lowest grants among the state's larger counties.
The board approved the change without discussion, but several board members interviewed afterward said they believed the increased grant would be adequate.
"It would be hard to live on it, but it's so much better than what people had before that I'm not too unhappy with the amount," said Supervisor Leon Williams.
"It's not a level that is going to provide luxury living," added Supervisor Susan Golding. "But that's not what we intend to do. It's an assistance for people who need it for a short time. It isn't intended for people to live on for years. It is intended to be a temporary grant to help people through what is a bad time for them."
Supervisor Paul Eckert, chairman of the board, said one of the reasons he believes that the increased level is enough is that people who can't make it on general relief can apply for other welfare programs.
"If that ($225) is not sufficient, there is a welfare system beyond this," Eckert said. "This is just an emergency aid anyway. In other words, there is a welfare system that will take care of that person."
Actually, according to Bacon, people on general relief have no other alternative. Although sometimes people receive general relief while awaiting other welfare payments, those who find themselves unable to live on the grant cannot apply for any other welfare program to supplement it.
"General relief is kind of the last resort for public assistance," Bacon said. "If they're eligible for general relief that means they're not eligible for any other form of public assistance."
Bacon said the increased grant will cost the county about $1.2 million a year. He said there are about 2,200 county residents on general relief at any one time, about 300 or 400 of whom are homeless. Supervisors voted last year to allow the homeless to receive benefits for 60 days before they must show proof of residence.