The number of Los Angeles County residents on welfare has fallen by almost a quarter in three years, the result of tough reform laws and a buoyant economy that has eased the transition to the workplace for the most able-bodied.
But social scientists say progress may slow just as dramatically, as the most employable welfare recipients are eased out of the system, leaving behind families with more stubborn problems.
Finding work for those remaining on welfare is emerging as the biggest challenge to reform. Experts say that many are hobbled by language and cultural barriers, as well as by long-standing deprivations that have left them with virtually no work experience.
"I think the so-called creaming from the top effect is very real," said Leonard Schneiderman, a retired UCLA social scientist and vice chairman of the county Commission for Public Social Services.
The men and women who have left welfare rolls so far, he said, "bring with them a better self-image and more optimism, who see there are options out there and they are going to take advantage of them."
The success or failure of large urban centers like Los Angeles County to adapt employment programs to meet the needs of its toughest cases will greatly influence the outcome of national welfare reform.
Los Angeles County, for example, has a larger caseload than any state except California and New York. If large numbers of poor mothers fail to find work, the state could fall short of federal work requirements and risk losing millions of dollars in funding.
The issue assumes critical importance in the next year, as time limits on aid begin to bear down on all welfare families.
Federal and state welfare legislation requires most recipients to find work within two years or face loss of benefits. The laws impose a five-year lifetime limit on cash assistance. The clock for most California recipients began ticking Jan. 1.
Local social advocates say that some groups are already falling behind. County data shows that Iranians, Armenians, Cambodians, Vietnamese and Chinese refugees are being enrolled in the county's welfare-to-work program at a much slower pace than others.
County officials point with optimism to a dramatic 23% plunge in cases since mid-1995. Close inspection of the numbers reveal inconsistencies.
Latino mothers, by far the largest group on assistance, show a 24% decline from welfare rolls. About 40% of white mothers have gone off welfare.
But cases of black single-parent families have dropped by only 16%; Asian families by 12%.
No one has determined why the disparities exist. Some social analysts say family size, education, language skills and neighborhoods are likely reasons.
"There are characteristics associated with demographic groups that affect their ability to avoid public aid," said Casey McKeever, director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "Smaller family size reduces dependence on aid; there is a correlation between education attainment and reliance on aid; if ethnic groups live in more economically depressed areas and opportunities are fewer, the likelihood is it will be harder to get off."
Sidonie Squier of the state Department of Social Services said many of these issues will be addressed in an evaluation of California's welfare program by the Rand Corp. that is due next year.
Counties have, with good reason, said Squier, focused "on populations they can move more quickly off the rolls and we can't argue with that. . . . But counties also have the flexibility to tune their programs to harder populations and they will have the resources to do that."
Squier and others say, however, that continued progress will depend on whether the economy sustains its current rebound.
The homeless, drug addicts and the mentally ill probably face the most trouble getting off welfare. States may exempt 20% of those on welfare as hardship cases. But qualifications are vague, and most experts say the 20% threshold will quickly be filled.
Recent immigrants and former refugees also face distinct challenges, said welfare analysts. County officials are stepping up efforts to enroll them in Greater Avenues to Independence--known as GAIN. The program helps people become employable, and without the help, say community advocates, welfare recipients remain at a disadvantage.
"We are already in the 10th month of the year and many recipients have not been apprised of what is required to maintain their benefits," said Nancy Au, director of the Western Region Asian Pacific Agency.
County welfare officials have contracted with the Department of Community and Senior Citizens Services to help enroll GAIN's huge backlog. The department has experience working with refugees and will use an extensive network of community-based groups to provide welfare-to-work services to about 10,000 families speaking neither English nor Spanish.