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A Needed Reprieve for the Poor

November 25, 1999

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors did the right thing when it rejected cutting off general relief benefits that were going to expire during Thanksgiving week. The supervisors extended aid for three months and ordered the county welfare department to do better at providing job training and placement.

The extension is politically feasible because the county welfare agency has accumulated more than $280 million in surplus funds from significant reductions in the federally funded welfare population--the families receiving traditional aid to poor children. It is also the right thing to do because the welfare department got off to a slow start on the workfare program that targets general relief recipients. General relief provides a monthly cash grant of $221 to poor, unemployed single men and women who are not raising children and are generally ineligible for other forms of monetary aid.

The Board of Supervisors last year restricted general relief cash benefits for employable recipients to five months a year. The loss of those benefits, according to independent surveys by UCLA and the nonprofit Shelter Partnership, caused increased hunger and homelessness.

The board changed that policy earlier this year and allowed the 41,000 recipients deemed employable to receive cash assistance for nine months if they complied with all requirements, including participating in a county workfare program. The first group of general relief recipients were scheduled to hit that deadline this week. The reprieve will allow them to collect cash benefits for three additional months, until February, and give the welfare agency more time to improve job training and placement.

Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky, who pushed for the reprieve, acknowledged the failings of the county's General Relief Opportunities for Work (GROW) program, which had a paltry 19% job placement rate. That rate may now be closer to one in three because of recent improvements, but it is still not good enough.

Welfare-to-work services provided by Chrysalis, a nonprofit group, get better results with the same hard-to-employ population, according to an analysis by Shelter Partnership, which supports providers of social services and housing for the homeless. The advantages of the voluntary program over the government program include a much smaller caseload, a better staff-to-client ratio and an earlier assessment of how employable a person is.

Because Chrysalis also runs two businesses, it can hire recipients who have difficulty getting work elsewhere because of poor skills and other barriers. What works for Chrysalis might also work for the government workfare program.

Many general relief recipients fail to find work because they have no permanent address, no means of transportation, no skills and no job experience. Those who participate in the county workfare program and diligently seek work deserve the reprieve.

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