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The Price of a 'No-Free-Lunch' Era : Welfare: An overhaul of the county's General Relief program has created a new crop of inequities.

Does Orange County Care?


In 1980, when a bad economy and rising poverty forced the Republican candidates for Orange County supervisor to debate welfare, the issue turned into a contest over who was tougher on fraud and laziness.

Supervisor Roger R. Stanton won the election. And following through on his campaign promise, he helped create what is still one of California's most extensive welfare-fraud units as well as a rigorous workfare program, in part, to drive home the message that "there is no free lunch."

"In the political world, workfare is probably a good thing to be supportive of," Stanton said recently. "There is in this country a negative connotation attached to the welfare system, and workfare puts integrity into the system."

The politics of welfare in Orange County assumes that everybody has bootstraps, if they want to use them. But almost 10 years after the 1980 campaign led to an overhaul of the county's General Relief program, many of its goals and assumptions appear confused and unmet.

General Relief "is almost money down the drain," said Jean Forbath, director of Share Our Selves, a Costa Mesa-based advocacy group for the poor. "You can't stop, because it's putting the finger in the dike. But it's not solving the problems."

The $8-million General Relief program--completely funded by county taxpayers--is supposed to provide most needy, childless adults with housing, food, clothing and transportation.

Unlike its larger state-funded counterpart--Aid to Families with Dependent Children--the program's rules and benefits are largely set by Orange County's five county supervisors.

For example, the workfare program here, much like those in other counties, requires that recipients who are healthy spend two days per week searching for a job and up to three days each week working for the county, mainly in maintenance or clerical jobs.

It is a politically popular program because it presumes that there will be aid only for the diligent and deserving. The reality, however, is much different.


* County officials estimate that up to 90% of the General Relief workfare clients are homeless, even though state law requires that they be provided a large enough benefit to pay for housing. Housing in Orange County is expensive--more than $20 per night in the cheapest motel. The maximum General Relief payment in Orange County--for housing, food and all other living expenses--is about $11 per day.

* More than half of the clients in the General Relief workfare program suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction or mental handicaps, county records show. Still, partly because there are not enough medical facilities to care for them, most are required to maintain a rigorous five-day-per-week schedule of work and job searches to receive their welfare payment. About two-thirds of all workfare clients are cut off from their aid because they fail to maintain the schedule.

* Despite all of the county's safeguards for fraud and abuse, officials acknowledge that many times, the cash they give out for living expenses is used to finance drug or alcohol addictions. Some clients are so severely addicted that they are declared unemployable, allowing them to receive their aid payment without having to join the work program.

"Rather than helping the person overcome his problems, we're giving him what he needs to perpetuate it," Larry Leaman, director of the county's Social Services Agency, conceded. "There is a dilemma when you hand a substance-abusing client a cash grant."

While most of the state's AFDC welfare clients are women and children, almost all of the county's General Relief recipients are men, mostly young. They are victims of poverty and, at the same time, of a popular perception that a young male should be self-sufficient and, if he is not, it is his own fault.

The problem, county officials admit, is that the system does not account for the many single men trapped in poverty who are also suffering from addictions or paralyzing emotional problems such as hopelessness and loss of esteem.

"Government can only do so much," said Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez. "It is willing to give a hand to those who want assistance, but we're not going to force-feed those who don't want to be helped."

Susan Bagarry, director of the county's welfare office in Anaheim, said the county is "not very hospitable" to people on welfare. "Personally, I don't know how they make it," she said.

Part of the politics of welfare, officials say, is that there is not a lot of public sympathy for poor single males and so there is not a strong incentive for the county to spend more money or provide more care.

Partly because the General Relief program does not have a high political priority, it has not been monitored closely. The county has done little research to determine if the program's goals are being met since the system was overhauled in 1980--even though there is evidence of problems.

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