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The Region

For Welfare-to-Work Clients, Social Service Cuts May Hit Hard

Assistance: As O.C.'s budget shrinks, the belt-tightening begins. One jobs-program worker calls it 'two steps backward' in helping the poor.

June 27, 2002|JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Monday, Claudia Hernandez had little hope she could live and work in Orange County. By Wednesday, she had new confidence that she might be hired as a bilingual receptionist and rent her own apartment. Besides job interview techniques, she'd gotten the beginnings of a new wardrobe and a coupon for a haircut.

But the welfare-to-work program that changed her attitude in a few short days is facing significant budget cutbacks. Orange County supervisors Tuesday approved cutting $39 million in social services funding, much of it for programs considered a vital safety net by the working poor and their advocates.

"If we lose this, we lose everything," said Hernandez, 28, who left her Santa Ana home because of what she called an abusive relationship and lives in a homeless shelter with two of her five children. "This helps us with interviews, how to present yourself, how to clothe yourself and how to develop confidence."

Because a looming state budget deficit will mean a drop in funding for the county, cuts are planned for welfare-to-work programs, medical outreach workers, adoptions, day care, job retraining and transportation that will affect thousands of low-income residents.

Some cuts are expected to take effect as early as Monday. Welfare officials can't estimate how many people ultimately will be affected. But one official said cuts may affect at least 5,000 clients of the county's CalWORKS program, which helps people get off welfare.

Supervisors approved $39 million in social services cuts when it adopted a $4.9-billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, a budget 4% more than last year's, but one that shaves $57 million across most county departments.

For poor people, living on the margins of a prosperous Orange County economy can often mean spending more than 50% of their income on rent. A cut in an assistance program may mean the difference between keeping a job or going back on the welfare rolls, say county social services officials and administrators of nonprofit agencies that serve the needy.

The cuts also mean that county social service workers will not be stationed at local hospitals, community medical clinics and family resource centers.

"We are going to reduce the access to programs," said Karin McGlinn, executive director of Share Our Selves. "We've made enormous strides under welfare reform, but this is two steps backward."

Hernandez receives $600 from welfare and now participates in a four-week course provided by Affiliated Computer Services in Anaheim, a county contract agency that expects to significantly reduce services to its 2,000 monthly clients.

On Wednesday, though, Hernandez was reviewing job interviewing techniques in a class of welfare recipients who were learning how to sell themselves to potential employers. A day earlier, they worked with another contract agency that provided work clothes.

"I was really scared, but now I think I can't do this without them," Hernandez said of the agency's employees. "I could never learn this on my own, and I don't have the money for clothes or anything."

Classmate Tamica Wilkerson, 23, the mother of a 4-year-old, agreed: "I would be lost without this program. I'd probably be a fast-food worker for the rest of my life."

Buddy Ray, executive director of Garden Grove-based nonprofit Community Development Council, which provides consumer education and assistance to low-income residents, said need will not decrease along with the cuts.

"For every government service cut, there will be a significant increase in demand," Ray said. "It is a cascading effect."

Ray's organization stations outreach workers at food banks to encourage clients to sign up for food stamps. The program eases demand at local food banks, which have lost as much as 25% of their donations just in the last year. He said that service will end, possibly next month, unless private money is found to replace county funding.

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