When state legislators take on politically potent groups such as gun owners or the elderly, the response is usually swift: Telephones ring, mail bags swell and lawmakers come under pressure to retreat.
That's not the case when the aggrieved group is welfare recipients, the Californians who will be hardest hit by the $56.4-billion state budget being drafted in Sacramento. A recent visit to the Los Angeles County welfare office in Inglewood helps illustrate why.
Of the scores of welfare recipients seated in the office's first-floor waiting room, few knew their monthly payments will shrink by 4.4% and could remain frozen for five years under a key piece of budget legislation signed into law June 30.
And of those who did, none felt they had the means to challenge the cuts, part of an effort by state leaders to bridge a $14.3-billion budget deficit.
"I've always thought about writing (Gov. Pete) Wilson, but it wouldn't do anything," said Kimberly Drivers, 22, a homeless mother of three, as she waited to see a welfare agent. "If I wrote him, though, I'd tell him I'd like to see him live one week on what I get in a month."
State leaders say all Californians--including those on welfare--should share in efforts toward deficit reduction. The 4.4% cut, effective Sept. 1, targets Aid To Families with Dependent Children, a program that mainly assists poor mothers. The average AFDC recipient--a mother of two--will see her monthly payments dip to $663 from the current $694. The reduction will entitle the recipient to additional federal food stamp money, but only about $10 more a month.
Most worrisome for those who depend on AFDC income is that in addition to the 4.4% cut, the welfare legislation also calls for a five-year suspension of AFDC cost-of-living increases. In the budget year that began July 1, the increase would have amounted to 5.5%.
More than 20,000 South Bay families will be affected by the austerity steps, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services. As in other areas of the state, however, many AFDC recipients do not know about the measures, much less how to protest them.
The problem doesn't surprise state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who represents a large number of the South Bay's poor. With state leaders divvying up a meager state budget pie, she says, welfare recipients lack the political muscle to protect their slice.
"When it comes to welfare issues, you're dealing with the powerless, you're dealing with nonvoters, and you're dealing with the uninformed," Watson said. "They don't know. They don't understand."
That the beneficiaries do care, however, was clear during the recent visit to the Inglewood welfare office, a monolithic brown building that serves clients from the South Bay, Westside and parts of South Central Los Angeles.
Welfare applicants and recipients, nearly all of them women, waited patiently in rows of orange plastic chairs--some bottle-feeding infants, some contending with restless gaggles of children, some sitting alone.
Once informed about the cuts, women on AFDC showed no shortage of opinions about their possible effect.
Terry Moore of Inglewood, a 29-year-old mother of two, said the measures could mean the difference between living in an apartment and living on the street. Her family already is hard-pressed to meet essential living expenses, she said.
"You have to rob Peter to pay Paul," Moore said. "You scrape enough to pay the phone bill and they turn your lights off. You pay for the lights and they cut off your phone."
There was, to be sure, the occasional dissenting voice.
Reba Stevens of Los Angeles, a mother of three, pronounced the welfare cuts a blessing in disguise. Stevens recently found a job with the Brotherhood Crusade, a Los Angeles community service group. She said her entry-level salary still entitles her to receive some AFDC benefits, but adds that those benefits will be curtailed as her salary grows.
"Most of the recipients are depending on AFDC when they would be able to work or go to school," Stevens said. "The only people (the cuts) hurt are the kind of person who wants to sit at home all day and not do something better for herself or her child."
Other women, however, disputed that view, saying it is impossible to make ends meet with minimum-wage jobs--virtually the only employment available to them. They cited the high cost of housing in the Los Angeles area and consistently steep child-care costs--usually more than $75 a week for preschoolers and over $80 a week for infants.
"I'm mad," said Cathy Jacobs of Inglewood, a single, 19-year-old mother of two. "Why would they take money out of our pockets? These are mothers trying to make it alone."
Saying she receives $694 a month in AFDC payments and $159 a month in food stamps, Jacobs predicted that her loss of AFDC income will ultimately force her family to leave its $350-a-month apartment. "I bet I'll be evicted," she said.