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Bureaucratic Silly Season

January 29, 1988

People make fun of bureaucrats, and sometimes they deserve it. This is such a time. The Reagan Administration says that a California plan to help homeless families with money from the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program is unfair because it wouldn't give extra help to families that aren't homeless.

Let's run that one by again. Because not all AFDC families are homeless, no homeless families can be aided under the federal program in California as the state government had been planning to do. It is a textbook bureaucratic response.

The response was coupled with a refusal to put up the money that California needed to start the program on Feb. 1 as scheduled. The state planned to help homeless people pay for temporary shelter and for deposits that are usually required to rent a house or an apartment. The Legislature approved the program last year after an appeals court ruled that the state had an obligation to help obtain shelter for entire homeless families--not just for the children in those families, as it had been doing.

The Deukmejian Administration decided to provide the help through the federal program, which pays half the costs. That was a creative solution, but one that required federal approval. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said no. The federal concern with treating one group of poor people differently from another is admirable; it might also be believable if the government showed more interest in helping homeless families directly. Now the Western Center on Law and Poverty has filed a suit to overturn the federal action.

To its credit, the Deukmejian Administration has been trying to negotiate with the federal government on the point. California's secretary of the Health and Welfare Agency, Clifford Allenby, went to Washington last week and reported that federal officials seemed concerned that Sacramento's approach might be copied by other states.

The climate of concern in Washington for the homeless is therefore decidedly chilly these days. The climate on the streets here will get chilly one day again, too. Given that reality, it would be far better to see federal officials trying to help the states to help themselves rather than erecting inflexible barriers.

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