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O.C. Social Services Agency Is Making No Plans as Yet

Reform: Officials want more information before deciding how to cope with welfare bill expected to be signed by Clinton today.

August 22, 1996|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — In the flurry surrounding the welfare reform bill President Bill Clinton is scheduled to sign today, with local governments projecting how they will retool their programs and who will be hurt, there is one spot of calm.

The Orange County Social Services Agency, which administers welfare programs to the county's poor, is sitting still. It has no new plans and is making no projections.

"We have not done that exercise," said Angelo Doti, director of the agency's financial assistance department. "I've seen lots of other counties do it, but we just refuse to do that because there are so many uncertainties right now."

In fact, agency director Larry Leaman has asked his staff not to release any projected numbers or statistics until more information is provided by the state.

"Frankly, the projections I've seen in the media from some states and counties are the worst possible scenarios that I just can't believe is going to happen," Leaman said. "I think it's premature to kick around any figures as though they were based upon sound analysis or logical assumptions."

That many Orange County residents will be affected by the bill is the only given. Almost 150,000 people use food stamps, and about 114,000 receive aid to families with dependent children, almost 70% of whom are children. Medi-Cal recipients in the county total 234,595, a number which is growing by about 1,000 per month.

How much these programs will change remains to be seen.

Once it becomes law on Jan. 1, the welfare bill will allow states broad leeway in designing aid programs, and the states in turn may allow counties to tailor programs specifically to their welfare recipients. For example, for aid to families with dependent children, the primary welfare program serving the poor, states have 32 options to work with, Doti said.

"All we know is the federal government expects to achieve great savings, but we're not going to speculate how," he said. "With so many variations allowable, no one can come close to knowing what a state would develop."

Within federal guidelines, states may develop programs with varying degrees of severity. If they choose, for example, states may:

* Require teenage parents to live with one of their own parents to receive benefits.

* Withhold benefits from families if the adults, aged 20 to 51, do not have a high school diploma or general equivalency degree and are not working toward either.

* Dock recipient families whose children are truant from school.

"It's all those kinds of things we don't know which way the state will go, and you certainly don't know what clients will do," Doti said.

While agency officials are not trying to anticipate which reforms or restrictions the state will implement, they are concerned that the agency will be required to perform jobs not now in its purview.

"This is a very education, work-oriented welfare reform package and it's full of control factors for persons' lives that we are apparently going to be required to enforce," Doti said

"Right now we have no way of knowing if a child goes to school or not. Are we going to hook up with school systems or law enforcement? These are all questions we just can't answer."

Most of the questions the public has about how welfare reform will affect the people receiving public aid, the Social Services Agency has too.

"One analysis I've seen says the bill sets a five-year-in-your-lifetime receipt" of welfare, Leaman said, "Then I've seen where another analysis says states can extend that, and I've seen one that says states can set a lower time limit. And is it retroactive? When does the clock start running on this five years?

"Basically I don't want my staff putting out any figures because whatever we say, we're going to be wrong."

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